New study questions shale gas as a bridge fuel

Leakage of methane from fracking boosts shale gas global warming impact; National Academy review is warranted

Natural gas fracking vs. coal

Comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas (with low and high estimates of fugitive methane emissions) [with other energy sources].  Top panel (a) is for a 20-year time horizon, and bottom panel (b) is for a 100-year time horizon.  Estimates include direct emissions of CO2 during combustion (blue bars), indirect emissions of CO2 necessary to develop and use the energy source (red bars), and fugitive emissions of methane, converted to equivalent value of CO2 as described in the text (pink bars).

I was a (relatively) early booster of shale gas as a potential game changer for greenhouse gas mitigation [see Game Changer, Part 1:  There appears to be a lot more natural gas than previously thought (6/10) and Part 2: “Unconventional gas makes the 2020 climate targets so damn easy and cheap to meet” (7/10)].

But there were always lurking concerns about the impact of methane leakage in from the unconventional gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, since methane is a considerably more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide.  Now three Cornell University professors have published a major analysis in Climatic Change, “Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations,” that seeks to quantify the impact of the leakage from the best available data.

They find a leakage rate large enough to seriously undercut gas’s GHG benefit even in high-efficiency combined cycle plants — and one that is all-but-fatal to any GHG benefit from using natural gas as a transport fuel. That conclusions is doubly true if one looks at the GHG impact over a few decades, rather than a century.

This is a potentially game-unchanging conclusion for one of the seminal energy policy choices of this decade — how hard to push shale gas here and around the world.  And yet, as the lead author Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth explained to me in an interview, it is based upon very limited data.  And that’s in part because the industry has fought efforts to get more data.  Prof. Howarth agreed with my suggestion that this would be a very ripe topic for the National Academy of Sciences to review.

The study’s basic conclusion is that shale gas production is a bigger, longer and more complicated enterprise than conventional drilling, and that methane leakage is much higher during production and processing:

Natural gas is composed largely of methane, and 3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the life- time of a well. These methane emissions are at least 30% more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas. The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured””as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids””and during drill out following the fracturing. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide, particularly over the time horizon of the first few decades following emission.

The authors argue that the urgency of climate change necessitates looking at shorter time horizons than 100 years :

Methane is a far more potent GHG than is CO2, but methane also has a tenfold shorter residence time in the atmosphere, so its effect on global warming attenuates more rapidly (IPCC 2007). Consequently, to compare the global warming potential of methane and CO2 requires a specific time horizon. We follow Lelieveld et al. (2005) and present analyses for both 20-year and 100-year time horizons. Though the 100-year horizon is commonly used, we agree with Nisbet et al. (2000) that the 20-year horizon is critical, given the need to reduce global warming in coming decades (IPCC 2007). We use recently modeled values for the global warming potential [GWP] of methane compared to CO2: 105 and 33 on a mass-to-mass basis for 20 and 100 years, respectively, with an uncertainty of plus or minus 23% (Shindell et al. 2009). These are somewhat higher than those presented in the 4th assessment report of the IPCC (2007), but better account for the interaction of methane with aerosols.

Here is Shindell et al., “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions” (subs. req’d).  Climate scientists I’ve spoken to think it is reasonable to use Shindell’s numbers.

Putting the leakage and the GWP together results in the figure reprinted at the top.  Here is an hour-long video that explains everything you could want to know about the study:

Of course, gas can be burned much more efficiently than coal, in combined cycle plants.  The authors’ supplementary material notes:

… our estimate of GHG footprint of fuels does not include the efficiency of final use. If we examine electricity production, current power plants in the US are 30% to 37% efficient if powered by coal and 28% to 58% if powered by natural gas…

When viewed on the 20-year time horizon, the GHG footprint for producing electricity from shale gas is 15% less than that for coal, when we assume the lowest methane emissions and highest efficiency of use for producing electricity. However, at the high-end estimates for methane emissions the GHG footprint is 43% higher than that for coal even when burned at high efficiency.

So, should we consider a 20-year time horizon or 100?

Prof. Howarth, who chairs the International SCOPE Biofuels Project and was Editor-in-Chief of the journal Biogeochemistry from 1983 to 2004, made a compelling case to me:  “If you believe climate change is real and that we are approaching tipping points, then you need to look at a time horizon of a few decades” for assessing impact.

Obviously, those who read the scientific literature know that climate change is real and that we are approaching tipping points (see for instance NSIDC bombshell: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100).

After all, we are talking about potentially investing many tens of billions of dollars in a new generation of natural gas-fired plants.  If the net benefit compared to coal is small over the key time frame of a few decades, the investment may not make sense from the perspective of cost per ton of CO2eq (equivalent) reduced.

And we need to look even closer at major investments in switching to natural gas vehicles, as the study notes:

Further, natural gas is often viewed as a replacement for diesel and gasoline as a transportation fuel and a replacement for fuel oil for space heating. In these roles, natural gas has no advantage with regard to efficiency of use.

Not only does natural gas have no advantage with regard to efficiency, but the carbon intensity of diesel is considerably lower than that of coal.  In other words, there was always only going to be a small GHG benefit in switching to natural gas vehicles.  This study would seem to suggest at the very least that we can no longer confidently assert there is any greenhouse gas benefit at all from such a shift.

Note:  Diesel fuel does emit black carbon which also has potent short-term warming effect.  Howarth et al d not factor that into their calculation.  Of course, the BC also undercuts the advantage of diesel over gasoline, too, which is hardly ever discussed.  That said, diesel particulate filters (DPF) “installed in place of a traditional muffler [would] reduce diesel PM emissions by 90%.”  But I digress.

Given the bombshell nature of the conclusions, I asked Howarth what his confidence was in the results.  He is very clear that this is “poorly documented information” and that we “did our best with sparse data.”  Why is the data sparse?

As Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard explains

That’s because industry isn’t currently required to report their emissions””and in fact are one of several industries suing the Environmental Protection Agency to keep it that way. Getting the data proved to be “amazingly frustrating,” [Howarth] says. The numbers he and his coauthors used in the study were drawn from a combination of industry reports, presentations, and dated EPA estimates.

Getting these numbers right should be a top priority, which is why I suggest a National Academy of Sciences review.  Howarth said he’d “be delighted” with such a review.  It may also require some serious push in the executive branch to get better data.

One obvious question:  Can fugitive or leaked emissions be reduced?  The study addresses that question directly in a short section:

Can methane emissions be reduced?

The EPA estimates that ‘green’ technologies can reduce gas-industry methane emis- sions by 40% (GAO 2010). For instance, liquid-unloading emissions can be greatly reduced with plunger lifts (EPA 2006; GAO 2010); industry reports a 99% venting reduction in the San Juan basin with the use of smart-automated plunger lifts (GAO 2010). Use of flash-tank separators or vapor recovery units can reduce dehydrator emissions by 90% (Fernandez et al. 2005).

Note, however, that our lower range of estimates for 3 out of the 5 sources as shown in Table 2 already reflect the use of best technology: 0.3% lower-end estimate for routine venting and leaks at well sites (GAO 2010), 0% lower-end estimate for emissions during liquid unloading, and 0% during processing.

Methane emissions during the flow-back period in theory can be reduced by up to 90% through Reduced Emission Completions technologies, or REC (EPA 2010). However, REC technologies require that pipelines to the well are in place prior to completion, which is not always possible in emerging development areas. In any event, these technologies are currently not in wide use (EPA 2010).

If emissions during transmission, storage, and distribution are at the high end of our estimate (3.6%; Table 2), these could probably be reduced through use of better storage tanks and compressors and through improved monitoring for leaks. Industry has shown little interest in making the investments needed to reduce these emission sources, however (Percival 2010).

Better regulation can help push industry towards reduced emissions. In reconciling a wide range of emissions, the GAO (2010) noted that lower emissions in the Piceance basin in Colorado relative to the Uinta basin in Utah are largely due to a higher use of low-bleed pneumatics in the former due to stricter state regulations.

One climate scientist said of his take away:  “Bottom line? Shale gas is not going to save the world, but if well managed/regulated it is marginally better than coal and oil for climate.”

The problem, of course, is that we have no evidence that shale gas is well-managed, and we know for a fact that it is not well regulated (see the CAP report, “Drilling down on natural gas fracking concerns“).

I also question whether we have any evidence it is better than oil for transportation since, as noted, you don’t get the big efficiency gain from natural gas vehicles that you can get from replacing existing coal plants with new, high-efficiency natural gas plants.

Finally, it bears repeating we have only a short time frame to sharply reduce GHGs before it becomes all but impossible to avoid key thresholds and tipping points — particularly the amplifying carbon-cycle feedbacks (discussed here).  And that means we can’t afford to spend lots of money on something that is “marginally better” than what we are doing today.

35 Responses to New study questions shale gas as a bridge fuel

  1. Richard Brenne says:

    We have a 1.8 million year addiction to burning things that we need to break if we are to survive.

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yet another example of really existing capitalism in action. Profit maximisation and capital accumulation are the ONLY things that matter. The climate, the fate of future generations and the lives of others are all ‘externalities’, ie things that they do not give a stuff about. In fact the ability to inflict suffering on others and not only get away with it, but have their MSM portray them as paragons for doing so, appeals strongly to the business pathocracy’s immense egomania and limitless contempt for others.

  3. tst says:

    Thanks, Joe. I’d been wondering when you were going to discuss this. We need to learn more before we make any long term decisions. An NAS study would make a ton of sense.

    [JR: I wanted to talk to the author, get feedback from some GWP experts.]

  4. climate undergrad says:

    But the president said that NG was clean!

    Classic “we need more study before we can come to these alarmist conclusions” supplemented by “cut funding / withhold data to perform said studies” situation. Now where have we seen that before!?

    (PS – the daily email has been becoming less-than-daily; my last two CP emails have been 4/10 and 4/6. Am I alone in experiencing that?)

  5. Richard Brenne says:

    Since there is no free lunch anywhere and especially in energy due to that pesky second law of thermodynamics, whenever I hear about fracking in my head I hear the soundtrack of Cee Lo Green’s hit hate song (I’m old enough to remember love songs, how quaint) with the famous chorus slightly modified to “Frack You!”

  6. Marlowe Johnson says:

    this is a serious bummer.

  7. Robert says:

    I see nothing good at all about shale gas. It may be slightly less damaging than coal per unit of energy but so what? If the rules of the game don’t change we will burn all the shale gas AND all the coal (and anything else we can lay our hands on. The only thing we are arguing about is what order we burn them in.

    The end result will be exactly the same – all the carbon currently safely sequested in rock formations will be converted to CO2 in the atmosphere and the oceans.

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    “…we can’t afford to spend lots of money on something that is “marginally better” than what we are doing today.”

    But we probably will. We in the US seem to insist on making the wrong choices to protect the climate and we love to switch the argument to security. Just as with corn ethanol this fracking gas is domestic so the powers that be will overlook all other concerns. When will the gas exploration companies begin to demand to drill in our “pristine public lands?” That always seems to be the next step with fossil fuel exploration.

    Maybe if we rename this gas a biofuel or biogas it would be more acceptable. We seem to accept burning things for energy if they have the “bio” title.

  9. catman306 says:

    What’s T. Bone Picken’s take on all this? Or the Koch Brothers?

  10. Mark says:

    IMO, we must pull out all stops ASAP to prevent feedbacks turning into a runaway problem, and therefore I see two good things about shale gas…

    1. We (USA) have a bunch which we can produce in a way that keeps soldiers and money at home.

    2. That money can be used to deploy shale-gas burning technology at the end user level ASAP.

    Why is that important, if it is only “marginally better”? Simple…. because we simultaneously should be pushing ALL carbon neutral technology and one of those is biofuel. If we convert our industry and transportation fleet to shale methane today, we can instead pipe in
    carbon-neutral biological methane tomorrow.

    In other words, we shouldn’t wait to start designing and deploying such technology on both ends of the process (end user or production). During start up on the production end, shale gas can help keep the natural consequences on our own home soil, instead of us sending our dollars and our blood overseas to protect our right to dump those consequences on someone else.

  11. catman306 says:

    Thanks Mark, that about answers my question.

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    This is extremely important news, since the bottom line is straightforward: natural gas is a bridge fuel, all right. A bridge to nowhere. There will be major pushback from the gas companies, many of which are entwined with politically powerful firms such as Exxon and Koch.

    The first round of counterattack will be to dispute the data, even though, as you pointed out, its incompleteness is caused by gas company secrecy. Next, we will once again hear “we don’t do it that way anymore”, a familiar lie from offshore drillers, nuclear plant operators, and clearcutters. In fact, compared to normal gas wells, fracking operations tend to be dispersed and small scale, making methane capture and predrilling costly and possibly impractical. Field monitoring will be nonexistent or incomplete, since DOE staffing is not adequate to the task.

    We should be prepared for another shock, as well: Obama and Chu will not use this information as reason to switch to clean and renewable energy, such as solar and wind. Instead, they will either ignore it or parrot the gas companies and call for “more study”.

    It will be very interesting to see how the Big Green groups such as Sierra Club, NRDC, Wilderness Society, and EDF react to this study, which appears methodologically solid, even if sampling is limited. Until now, they have enabled the talk of gas as a “bridge fuel”, and not fought very hard against either gas or fracking. Now, they will need to put all of their power once and for all behind the push toward clean energy. If they don’t, and waffle once more about clean gas and sequestered coal, the thinking public will know that it is truly on us now, and nobody else. It’s what we used to know as American democracy in action- an idea that is not too late to revive.

  13. Richard Brenne says:

    With these problems with fracking (possibly worse than coal!) I guess I’ve become the Weird Al Yankovic (with slightly less hair) of renewable energy. Here’s my lyrics to Cee lo Green’s hit song that was sung as “Forget you” many places and “Fox News” on the Colbert Report.

    Here’s a link to the lyrics and check out the music video to the right of them, it’s epically soulful and fun while illuminating some of the problems with our current materialism.

    I see you drivin ‘round town
    In your natural gas car and I’m like,
    Frack you-oo-o!
    I guess the change to renewable
    To you wasn’t do-able I’m like
    Frack you-oo-o!
    Yeah I’m sorry I can’t afford a Ferrari
    But those still run on oil
    When I pulled up in a Tesla, ya went all lesla
    I guess it’s wind and solar you want to foil
    I guess the change to renewable
    To you wasn’t doable so I’m like
    Frack you!
    And frack her too!

  14. Ziyu says:

    I might support natural gas again IF the EPA regulates fracking and requires some methane control technology.

  15. Joan Savage says:

    It’s an excellent idea to bring in NAS.

    Monitoring for escaped gas seems fraught with difficulty, a real Pandora’s box: dispersed locations, many drilling activities simultaneously, and erratically pulsed gas releases all add up to a regulatory headache. Satellite monitoring with infrared, thousands of on-site IR methane detectors, particle detectors, or a combination are technically possible, but not in the budget.

  16. Wit's End says:

    I highly recommend the film Gasland. In it you can see massive infrared images of the gases continually escaping from drill sites, it’s appalling and terrifying.

    Also as I am concerned most about the death of trees and other vegetation, this research makes me wonder how much methane is contributing to ozone, since I found this quote:

    “Methane, a VOC whose atmospheric concentration has increased tremendously during the last century, contributes to ozone formation but on a global scale rather than in local or regional photochemical smog episodes.”

    I don’t know if it’s true because it’s not from peer-reviewed scientific publication – but it is certainly another potentially large source of toxins that are damaging vegetation.

    link in this post:

    If anyone has more information about methane impacting plants, I would be very interested!

  17. Theodore says:

    Is murder less a crime if a smaller bullet is used?

  18. Mark says:

    @catman306 – Energy In Depth, a coalition of independent oil and gas producers, has already offered up a lengthy rebuttal of the Howarth analysis at its Web site.

    By the way – I’m a different Mark than Mark #10…

    Here’s a quick summary.
    They don’t like Howarth’s use of 105 for GWP factor instead of the IPCC’s GWP factor of 72.
    They don’t like using the 20 year GWP factor instead of the 100 year GWP – as Joe mentions.
    They point out that the report was put together with very scant data – also mentioned above.
    They don’t buy the numbers attributed to LUG gas (lost and unaccounted gas) claiming that LUG numbers are more about accounting than actual leaks into the atmosphere.
    They don’t like the fact that the study’s data is based on very long pipeline lengths and claim that pipelines for shale gas will be much shorter.
    Finally they don’t like that Howarth has been campaigning against fracking and accuse him of bias.

    One commenter asked the Energy In Depth people if they had generated their own peer-reviewed study of natural gas losses and wondered whether Energy in Depth might have an agenda of their own.

  19. K. Nockels says:

    This study as limited as it is by the industry itself, big surprise there, just confirms for me what I learned from Gasland. This is just another fossil fuel industry with the same agenda as every other, make as much money as you can before anyone finds out the real consequnces of what your doing and regulates it. They’re bottom line is “killing the planet is just good buisness”

  20. Joe, many thanks for advancing this story, with good reporting

    The scariest part of the whole thing may be the contention that even in the best possible case the advantage for methane over coal is ‘marginal.’ In which case it’s an optical illusion of a bridge, and it would be a tragedy to invest real hope (and money) in it.

  21. DRT says:

    Fee and Dividend, Fee and Dividend, Fee and Dividend. I read these posts and many others and think If we only had a price on CO2 and equivalents including a price on the carbon from the full lifecycle that included things like the leaked methane from every unit of natural gas, then the market would work. But there’s franckin’ little chance of a price on carbon in this reality; and substituting my own (reality) isn’t helping.

  22. catman306 says:


    As anecdotal evidence, my mother-in-law had a really high natural gas bill for several years and some yellow areas on her otherwise green lawn. Turns out that there were gas leaks in the regions near the yellow areas.

    Indoor plants don’t do well in houses with natural gas heating, especially those ‘gas log’ fireplaces.

  23. OregonStream says:

    Maximized efficiency looks more appealing than ever. If we’re going to have any hope of soon replacing a substantial portion of coal and petroleum with even fossil gas, let alone carbon-neutral biogas, there’s a need to seriously incentivize efficiency, including the use of lighter, hybridized vehicles. As far as I can tell, that isn’t proceeding as fast as it needs to. Barring the introduction of a miracle, fossil fuels will rule as long as nation and world consume energy like there’s no tomorrow.

  24. Cinnamon Girl says:

    A bit more to Mark #18, API’s senior economic advisor Russell Jones (I quiver in the presence of economist credibility in this scientific area) says “This study lacks credibility and is full of contradictions…The main author is an evolutionary biologist and an anti-natural gas activist who is not credentialed to do this kind of chemical analysis. In supporting documents, the authors admit that the data used was of very low quality. This study is really an exercise in selective data and manipulated methodologies used to reach conclusions that deliberately contradict mainstream science.”

    I’ll be durned–that sounds a little like what climate scientists say about the carbon industry’s propagandista anti-AGW commentary (except maybe for the tar-the-team with snipes at the “main author” part). Note how the economeister substitutes ‘very low quality data’ in for the ‘sparse data’ description the author uses. Well, API, what exactly are you afraid of? Afraid that a National Academy inquiry might contradict your advertising, and bruise your fragile egos? I gather the Howarth study is to be published in Climatic Change Letters, which I believe is a peer-reviewed publication. Shoot, I should know by now that anything that can be associated with that climate change thing will draw carbonated critics like a swamp visitor attracts mosquitoes.

  25. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Greg Combet, Minister for Climate Change and Energy is socking it to them at the National Press Club [ABC TV]. He started by outlining the climate science, ME

  26. Richard Brenne says:

    I’d be interested to know what Joe and the rest of you thought of Bjorn Lomborg on David Letterman last night, Tuesday, April 12.

    I thought if it was a thousand times better than it was it would still be far beneath abysmal and contempt, whichever is lower.

    First of all, having Bjorn Lomborg on just gives him an audience when he deserves none (which was within about a dozen of what the theatrical release of his documentary, “Cool It”, received). All those responsible for the booking deserve a booking on Beelzebub’s talk show, where the segments are longer, more entertaining and warmer.

    Lomborg was simply an ego in a too-hip tight-fitting black shirt, so smugly and smarmingly smirking I wanted to pull an Elvis (not a euphemism) and shoot my television screen or pop a pharmacy’s stock of pills and permanently slump over on my toilet seat like the King.

    Lomborg assured Dave that sea level would only rise a foot by 2100 when every scientific specialist on sea level rise I know at NSIDC, INSTAAR, CIRES and NOAA has been saying a meter for several years now. That’s 39 inches, or well over three times Lomborg’s guarantee that was well below even the laughingly conservative midpoint of the last IPCC estimate that didn’t include icecap melting that will become the biggest factor by 2100.

    With Lomborg Letterman looked like the Midwestern rube he purports no longer to be and evidently couldn’t be bothered to take more than 5 minutes out of his busy schedule (the show has lots of interns) to figure out how to challenge Lomborg’s assured and erroneous assertions.

    Letterman was great when he let Jim Hansen on and let him speak, which he did brilliantly, and Jon Stewart was far too hard on Al Gore and far too easy on the Freakonomics Economist, evidently thinking that each was the other.

    Colbert has generally done the best of the lot, except for not letting Bill McKibben speak long enough.

    The Great Dane’s segment was the worst I’ve ever seen on television (and I’ve seen a lot), with Letterman the most unprepared and inept host I’ve seen.

    The one miniscule thing that was at least somewhat appropriate was Letterman’s snide snipe that evidently Denmark has a Gap, referencing Lomborg’s black t-shirt (nicely contrasting arms too white to register on Ansel Adam’s scale of all the shades including absolute white).

    I’ve met both Letterman and Lomborg and wish I’d met them both at the same time that was also the exact instant a meteor the size and culture of Dallas hit all three of us.

    But other than that. . .

  27. Ed Hummel says:

    It’s always struck me that if excess carbon in the atmosphere is the problem (as we all know it to emphatically be), then the only rational solution to this problem is to totally eliminate, or at least drastically reduce our carbon emission to levels that would be absorbed by natural carbon sinks. However, because the oceans are the primary carbon sink and their absorption of carbon is leading to their increased acidification, then the only solution obviously becomes total elimination as quickly as possible by all means necessary. Of course this then becomes a touchy political problem because it means drastically curtailing what citizens can do since our whole civilization has come to be based on burning fossil fuels over the last 200 years. The only solution to that is strictly enforced mandates against the burning of any fossil fuels, not to mention the drastic curtailment of forest destruction and any other activities involving the release of carbon including various “modern” agricultural methods, cement production, suburban sprawl, the universal paving over of the planet, etc. In other words, if we’re really serious about curtailing and eliminating the excess carbon in the atmosphere to preindustrial levels, it means reverting back to a situation similar to the 18th century and retaining only those technologies and living patterns that don’t contribute to carbon pollution and general environmental degradation. It seems to me that only methane produced from recycling operations (such as from methane digesters) would be allowed in such an endeavor since natural gas is still fossilized methane that has been sequestered from the atmosphere for millions of years. Of course this all flies right in the face what we have created with capitalism and continuous economic growth, not to mention unrestricted population growth and its accompanying accelerated resource depletion as everyone aspires to a “higher” standard of living. So, trying to be realistic about the whole thing, I won’t be holding my breath that anything meaningful will get done to avert the chaos that seems more surely to come with each passing day. There are 7 billion sets of toes to step on and I think that at least a few (especially those of us with a lot of power and money), if not most, will put up a strong resistance to the steps needed to really accomplish anything meaningful.

  28. Joan Savage says:

    Richard (#26), Thanks to your vivid summary, I’m not going to bother to look up the show tape right away, and I’m very happy that you and nearby sections of the planet didn’t disappear under a meteor the size of Dallas. I hope you were able to rest after the evening’s infuriation.

    As I was spared that disturbance, what emerged from the synthesis of sleep was a reflection on the transience/ intransigence of natural gas infrastructure and fugitive methane releases from abandoned wells.

    Abandoned wells and estimate of the number of future abandoned wells from fracking should be part of the study of fugitive methane release.
    We already have a problem with fugitive methane release from old wells.

    ProPublica, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Huffington Post recently ran a Nicholas Kusnetz piece on the pre-existing problem. “Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country” (ProPublica) gives some dimension to the number of abandoned wells already involved.

    New York State has conventional gas wells from the 20th century that are either presently classified as plugged and abandoned, or undocumented wells that are stumbled upon from time to time, not logged into the state records. As pipe corrodes and cement fractures, and methane is a volatile gas that rises and escapes, there have been anecdotal observations of methane release from the supposedly closed wells. New York is strapped for funds so a more comprehensive investigation is not likely, but a fair estimate of fugitive methane releases would involve field investigation.

    Bandied about estimates of natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale are typically less than twenty years of production life per well, even with repeated fracking of the well. With boom-and-bust per well, that produces a whole lot of abandoned well infrastructure within a few decades, as the industry moves around scavenging for new locations. The gas industry’s estimates of tens of thousands of wells to be drilled within a few years come to mind.

  29. Mike Roddy says:

    Richard Brenne, I didn’t watch Lomborg because he would have given me nightmares. Colbert summed up his schtick well: “It’s getting warmer. So?” Lomborg has carved out a niche for those who are not complete idiots, but want to be reassured in order to avoid making any changes in their lives. That fits the oil companies’ needs very well.

    It’s not just The Dane who refuses to believe sea level rise projections, unless they’re the very old ones from IPCC. Dr. Ward told me that the Seattle Tunnel engineers designed according to a one foot sea level rise, meaning that the tunnel would be flooded and useless within a few years of its being completed. When Ward pointed out that, uh, it’s actually going to be higher than that, the project managers didn’t listen. And these guys were supposed to be professionals.

  30. Joan Savage says:

    Mike (#29)

    In New York State, architects and their immediate families (yes, it’s true) are personally liable for the architect’s design errors. I don’t know if Washington State has a similarly comprehensive professional liability for engineering design.

    It would be doubly shocking if the engineers on the Seattle Tunnel had such a liability risk, and still stuck with designing for a one-foot rise. They or their descendants might live to see the consequences, but I’d rather the tunnel was not built.

    As it is, the tunnel enables massive car use. That is a problem even if the tunnel and its sea wall could handle a one-meter mean sea level rise, a 9.0 earthquake, or a tsunami rushing into Puget Sound from a quake out at sea on the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

    The gas industry has even more limited liability regarding long-term outcome, as mineral rights are leased for a limited time period and long-term liability consequences default back to the landowner.

    I’d like to come up with a generic term for lack of accountability, even when the risks are foreseeable, like a corroded pipe leaking methane, or an eventual tsunami. HeadintheSand or Black Swan help but still need more emotional pungency.

  31. Mike Roddy says:

    Joan, an engineering firm is responsible in Seattle, and they typically have plenty of insurance. As an example, the structural firm responsible for the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel collapse went under, but I don’t think that the engineers themselves BK’d.

    The tunnel engiineers probably also figured that if they’re wrong, they and their children will be long dead. The other factor keeping their heads in the sand is that if they concede much higher sea level rise, they have to redesign the whole project, at great expense- and it may not be doable at the new number.

  32. jimmie says:

    I question using the Shindell et al. GWP for methane as the basis for comparing coal and natural gas as fuels. As I understand the Shindell et al. study, they think methane has a higher GWP because it depresses the amount of sulfate that is formed in atmospheric chemical reactions from sulfur dioxide. Less sulfate; more warming. But the sulfur dioxide that is the first step in the chain of atmospheric reactions comes primarily from coal-fired power plants. If we got rid of coal combustion, this interfernce with the conversion of its pollution to light reflecting aerosols couldn’t be scored against methane. By the way that sulfur pollution is responsbile for tens of thousands of premature deaths per year. So, let’s assign the blame for this pollution in the proper column–to coal and not to natural gas. If you buy the Shindell et al. paradigm, would you then agree to give coal credit for the cooling effects of its sulfate pollution?

  33. Peter Sergienko says:

    After reading this great blog and the thousands of great comments over the last several years I’ve concluded that humanity has hit or exceeded its “burn limit.” Whether it’s fossil fuels, biofuels, wood/forests, or dung, the harms to humanity and the environment from burning stuff to generate power, to move us around, to clear land for development or agricultural use, to cook our food, and to keep us comfortable seem to have exceeded these admittedly critical benefits. Because burning stuff is foundational to our existence, we need to modify our framework thinking. Instead of asking how can we keep burning stuff in more environmentally benign ways, which seems mostly to result in rearranging Titanic deck chairs in practice, we need to ask how can we rapidly transition to the “post-burning economy.”

  34. Julie W says:

    I think Ed Hummel (27) has put the basics in a nutshell: continuous economic growth, unrestricted population growth, accelerated resource depletion. Hey Planet, wake up! Give Survival a chance! Assuming we don’t have a collective death wish, I’d like to make two modest suggestions. One has been widely (but to my mind, insufficiently) discussed; the other is a new thought as far as I know. (1) A really serious Carbon Emissions tax. Most people will not change their habits until they feel it in the pinching of the pocketbook. (2) Here is an energy-saving idea that would not cost a cent and can be set in motion literally overnight. Let the government set a date and on that date, let every scheduled thing begin three hours earlier. Offices that used to open at 9 am will open at 6; schools, theatrical performances, shops, supermarkets, everything will open 3 hours earlier and close 3 hours earlier from that point on. Midnight is the middle of the night, right? So if I sleep 8 hours and want to make best use of daylight, then midnight should be the middle of my sleep time. So I should go to bed at 8 pm and get up at 4 am (and not 11 pm to 7am). Can anyone compute an estimate of how much energy that would save?

  35. Ed Hummel says:

    Julie (#34), great, completely benign and painless way of starting a more rational life style for everyone!!!! It’s always struck me as bizarre that people complain about getting up before dawn, yet continually stay up way past dusk and think that it’s normal! I’ve always looked at artificial lighting as a way to extend the short hours of daylight in the winter in the higher latitudes. But there’s really no reason to rely on artificial lighting for more than brief moments or for special applications during the long summer days. That just might be a good way to start the general population heading back to a more environmentally sound life style while getting individuals more in tune with natural systems and cycles. Our civilization might actually become more sustainable if it became less artificial and guided more by what nature dictates rather than by our ephemeral desires. And while we’re at it, we could do away with time changes twice a year, too. The rationale for saving energy during Daylight Saving Time would become academic if everyone followed the daily sun cycle and performed most activities when the lighting is free. And concerning your other point about a serious price on carbon, that should be the most obvious no-brainer of all!