International Energy Agency Finds ‘Safe’ Gas Fracking Would Destroy A Livable Climate

Photo by Walter Disney

The International Energy Agency has a new report out, Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas. Unfortunately, the IEA buried the lede — the Golden Age of Gas scenario destroys a livable climate — so the coverage of the report was off target.

For instance, the New York Times opines, “Energy Agency Finds Safe Gas Drilling is Cheap.” And the Council on Foreign Relation headline is similar, “Safe Fracking Looks Cheap.”

That’s true only if a ruined climate, widespread Dust-Bowlification, an acidified ocean, and rapidly rising sea levels is your idea of “safe.”

Still, the IEA deserves much of the blame for this miscoverage. It’s not until page 91 (!) of the full report that the agency explains that adopting its “Golden Rules” for developing shale gas doesn’t stop catastrophe:

The Golden Rules Case puts CO2 emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions at around 650 parts per million, a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target. This finding reinforces a central conclusion from the WEO special report on a Golden Age of Gas (IEA, 2011b), that, while a greater role for natural gas in the global energy mix does bring environmental benefits where it substitutes for other fossil fuels, natural gas cannot on its own provide the answer to the challenge of climate change.

D’oh! Or is that Duh?

The IEA was far clearer and blunter when it released its original report, as I wrote last year: IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change. At the time, the UK Guardian‘s story put it well:

At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.

Not exactly a champagne moment.

Also, it’s far from clear that 650 ppm is even stable, in the sense of not triggering carbon cycle feedbacks that cause further warming — or not crossing dangerous tipping points (see “New study of Greenland under ‘more realistic forcings’ concludes ‘collapse of the ice-sheet was found to occur between 400 and 560 ppm’ of CO2” and “Hansen Is Correct About Catastrophic Projections For U.S. Drought If We Don’t Act Now“).

If we risk warming beyond 3.5C, we are courting multiple, simultaneous disasters. Such warming is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e.  4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level),” according to Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain (see here).

Also, the IEA scenario assumes coal use is basically flat from from 2020 to 2035, which the report makes pretty clear would require a price on carbon. Without a carbon price, natural gas is a brige to nowhere and can actually crowd out carbon-free sources of power. That was precisely the point made by Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, at a London press conference for the 2011 report:

“While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

The UK Guardian focused on the crowding effect for its piece Tuesday on the new report, ” ‘Golden age of gas’ threatens renewable energy, IEA warns.”

To be clear, the “Golden Rules” proposed by the IEA still lead to a 20% rise in energy-related CO2 emissions from 2010 to 2035, a time we need to be slashing global CO2 levels. As climatologist Ken Caldeira told me in March, natural gas is “A Bridge To A World With High CO2 Levels.

Oh, and there’s a mini-bombshell that the IEA sticks in a footnote when discussing options for avoiding the 3.5+ C warming:

This conclusion could be changed by widespread application of technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which could reduce considerably the emissions from the consumption of gas (and other fossil fuels); but this is not assumed in the period to 2035.[15]

It’s wise not to assume much CCS by 2035 given the unresolved feasibility, permanence and safety issues surrounding CCS as well as the fact that CCS efforts around the world are being scaled back or terminated.

But here’s the IEA’s footnote 15:

15.  There is the possibility that the capacities for CO2 storage might be affected by hydraulic fracturing. A recent study (Elliot and Celia, 2012) estimated that 80% of the potential area to store CO2 underground in the United States could be prejudiced by shale and tight gas development, although others have argued that, even if the rock seal in one place were to be broken by hydraulic fracturing, other layers of impermeable rock underneath the fractured area would block migration of the CO2.


I’d been meaning to blog on that study, “Potential Restrictions for CO2 Sequestration Sites Due to Shale and Tight Gas Production” (abstract here). No, this study doesn’t mean fracking will wipe out all potential CCS storage areas. But it does suggest that an all-out fracking spree — aka the Golden Age of Gas Scenario aka GAGS — will constrict our storage options in the future.

Finally, on my 2011 post on GAGS, Tyler Hamilton, Business Columnist at The Toronto Star, commented:

Not only is gas threatening to crowd out renewables, cheap natural gas — viewed as an input fuel — is dramatically improving the economics for unconventional oil. More cheap gas means more dirty oil. Not a good combination.

The bottom line is that if your goal is to stay under or as close to 4°F warming as possible, then we can’t be investing significant resources in new fossil fuel infrastructure — especially without a high and rising CO2 price.

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19 Responses to International Energy Agency Finds ‘Safe’ Gas Fracking Would Destroy A Livable Climate

  1. Dick Smith says:

    RE: stability of 3.5C to 4C world. I assume that by the time we reach them, those temperatures will be nothing more than a minor speed bump on the road to irreversible global warming–where the physics and chemistry of the earth have already taken over the controls for the next few thousand years.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    I recently heard Jessica Ernst speak about her legal case, Ernst versus EnCana, regarding groundwater contamination in Alberta, Canada, from shallow (yes shallow) fracking operations to obtain biogenic methane.
    She mentioned that natural gas exploration by Kaiser under the city of Calgary means going through a hydrogen-sulfide gas enriched geologic layer. H2S is toxic, so there is a human health risk if it mixes with water supply or vents to atmosphere.

    This caught my attention with broader application. When H2S mixes with CaCO3 already in shale, it forms gypsum which has twice the volume, and can force the shale to split. Gypsum seams form white streaks seen in shale formations. These are pre-existing cracks in what might be looked at as caprock.
    Coincidentally, the heave pressure from gypsum formation is 500 kPa and greater, and 520 kPA is enough to liquify CO2.

    Which raises a question..what would be the carrying agent for gaseous CO2 storage, or are the storage folk expecting to store it liquified and under pressure?!!

    So I second that, “Yeow!!”

  3. M Tucker says:

    Do unto the climate as you would have the climate do unto you.

    We will get all the rewards promised from that bargain. We are a long way from giving up fossil fuels and it is obvious that no matter what some UN climate tourist (all they do is travel around the globe and talk only to themselves) might say, limiting global warming to an average of 2 degrees is past. I’m so very glad that the bad stuff will hold off until we exceed 3.5 degrees.

    “…if your goal is to stay under or as close to 4°F warming as possible…” Then I think you have given up on civilization as we know it. You have signed onto a “…ruined climate, widespread Dust-Bowlification, an acidified ocean, and rapidly rising sea levels…”

  4. Joan Savage says:

    Since I referred to a legal case, it should be amended to “..groundwater contamination in Alberta, Canada, – insert allegedly – from shallow (yes shallow) fracking operations to obtain biogenic methane.”

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Seems rather appropriate here:

    Exxon Evaluating Gas Exports From Gulf, Canada – WSJ

    As M Tucker pointed out we are so far away from giving up profitable fossil fuels. Prices for exported natural gas (and coal for that matter) are significantly higher than US domestic natural gas prices and would raise domestic prices over time as well (win, win for domestic fossil fuel industries).

  6. Barry Saxifrage says:

    “Golden years” of natural gas is more appropriate.

    The one bene of natural gas is that all that leaking/venting methane will cook us up a lot quicker than coal’s CO2+aerosols. Frack-ville will “bring it on” quicker and reduce the “what me worry” delay between spew and stew.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    If natural gas is the answer, then the question must be: What’s the easiest way to delude ourselves into staying on a horribly destructive oath?

    If you assume that we can drill, frack, extract, and transport large volume of natural gas with absolutely zero leakage or flaring, then the time needed to transition to and from NG decades in the future makes it an exceedingly bad idea.

    NG as a motor vehicle fuel reduces CO2 emissions per mile by only around 20%. How long would it take to replace 70 to 100% of the vehicles on US roads? And then how long would it take to convert from them to something much cleaner? Hint: At current sales rates, over 30 years, making a 20% CO2 savings not nearly a big enough payback.

    NG for generating electricity sounds great — half the CO2 per kilowatt hour! — until you think about the 40 to 60 year lifetime of the new power plants and the enormous dependency on yet another fossil fuel you’d create by trying to maximize the environmental benefit.

    For developing counties, coal is the ultimate environmental policy test. For developed countries, it’s NG. So far, both camps are failing miserably.

  8. Joy Hughes says:

    “Golden Age of Gas?” … GAG!

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The next few HUNDRED thousand years, surely?

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As long as capitalists and their Rightwing political and MSM stooges control the planet, then every last gram of fossil fuel is destined to be burned to turn it into gold, through the alchemical genius of business. The fate of humanity is an externality, of no interest to these pathologically single-minded creatures. In fact they act like some hive intelligence, in the uniformity and single-mindedness of their activities.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Gas fracking is all about profit, and destroying renewables. The real cost of ‘cheap’ gas, the destruction of humanity through the release of yet greater volumes of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, is simply a nullity, an ‘externality’ that may simply be ignored by the assassins of our species, the Rightwing capitalist genocidaires.

  12. harbinger says:

    Kevin Anderson is no longer Director of the Tyndall Centre, it is now Corrinne Le Quere.

    Professor Anderson is not a climate scientist, but from his own bio is a marine engineer and mathematician.

  13. Kent Otho Doering says:

    The old ex-pat vet from Munich again. What has to be done is find ways to violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics.

    Ýesterday´s headline in the “Sueddeutsche Zeitung” read “20 bil,lion Euros necessary to rebuild the German power grid”. This is essential to handle all the solar p.v., Desertec “concentrated solar”, wind, hydroelectric, bio-waste and aqueous fuel systems going up.

    There is a lot of solar going up-estimated
    solar p.v. to be installed in Germany at the moment- 22 000 megawatts producing during the day. By 2025- solar p.v. in Germany will reach a daytime summer capacity of over 50.000 megawatts.

    Bio-waste methane CHP -combined heat power systems are being installed at increasing fast rates. At present,about 3000 farms have it along with local wind and solar p.v.. By 2025- all 200.000 farms in Germany will be equipped with “bio waste” methane recapture. CHP – combined heat power. You displace oil or gas heating on the farms with it, and at the same time, generate power- i.e. an average base line power of 100 kWh per farm from bio waste methane recapture alone. Wind, solar, and bio- waste and emerging aqueous fuel systems enhancing the bio waste systems will have German agrarian regions putting out cloe to 3 times the power than they consume… with much of the excess going into hydrogen buffering systems.

    That bio waste methane alone will put another 20.000 mWh on the German grid by 2025.

    And the nukes are not being just shut down.
    Germany is sitting on two massive geo thermic fields which are already being modestly exploited- and now serious studies are being conducted as to the feasibility of converting the nukes to “Closed steam circuit” deep geothermal with a radical upgrade of the generators- to opposed magnetic field enhanced drive A +++, with additional power from Stirling motors driving the same kind of generators.
    That will put another 30.000. mWh of clean
    deep Geothermal baseline power onto the grid,converting the shut down, and to be shut down nuclear power plants.


    [JR: This comment was way, way, way too long. If you cut it in half, it would still be too long.]

  14. Paul Klinkman says:

    Joe, you need to note that natural gas is nothing but methane, a greenhouse gas, and that fracking occasionally hits “dry wells” that in fact are dry because some random new crack in the earth quickly releases all of the well’s potential methane into the earth’s atmosphere. I just read that the Four Corners area, which has lots of fracking these days, has measured a noticeable rise in atmospheric methane. So, the act of fracking apparently causes climate change, and the methane gives climate change a jump start. Never mind the other gas leaks all along the pipeline.

  15. mikeohlinger says:

    Please Google: Eco Light House Native Shores Safety 1st her is the answer to over 50 to 60% of our energy night time toxic pollution check valve it is called the LED STREET LIGHT. Than when you factor in all the Voltage line drop in power loss over high voltage and lower voltage lines the screws at the power plant will not have to be supplied with toxic co2 fossil fuels as much voltage line drops as i here can be as high as 30 to 40% this ads up to real savings to our planet and our tax pockets like you may save close to 100% in energy loss To our GOVERNMENTS it is just another $ NORM for Coal Gas and oil! Waste a Watt is a Breath Gone buy for a child’s future!

  16. Chris ODell says:

    Paul @11, Can you provide a link to the Four Corners methane study? I know that a recent NOAA study found the same thing in a large NG development area in NorthEast Utah

  17. This is a huge, huge, huge problem. The fossil fuel interests are doing their best to kill alternatives before they have a chance to get off the ground. Without a viable alternative energy industry, efforts for climate change will be severely curtailed and the world will be fast tracked for runaway climate change. The battles are being fought right now. This is something we can’t afford to lose.

  18. Paul Klinkman says:

    Sorry, I just read it someplace on the web.

  19. Mixy says:

    I was at the Carnegie event where they released this report. Alarm bells went off in my head when Mr. Birol casually mentioned the 3.5 degree rise trajectory. I, too, left feeling like that bit of information alone should have been the headline! Thanks for your article.