Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The New Yorker On Shale Gas Dumps Howarth Into Oblivion

Hooray for The New Yorker and its writer Elizabeth Kohlbert for not transmitting one more time Professor Howarth's junk science.  She writes: "Coal plants, meanwhile, produce almost twice the volume of greenhouse gases as natural-gas plants per unit of energy generated.  In the end, the best case to be made for fracking is that much of what is already being done is probably even worse."  www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2011/12/05/111205taco_talk_kolbert

At least 5 studies (Carnegie Mellon University, Worldwatch Institute, National Energy Technology Laboratory, University of Maryland, and the Second Cornell University study) confirm the accuracy of her statement and justify her judgment for consigning Howarth to oblivion.  Kohlbert also could have added that gas power plants emit no toxics or soot that sicken and kill up to 34,000 people per year, according to the EPA.

The fact that coal emits twice the carbon on a lifecycle basis as natural gas certainly makes the environmental case for banning shale gas difficult. Indeed the United Nations for the Durban Climate Talks announced that the world needs to cut global carbon emissions by 53% below 2005 levles by 2050 to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Natural gas when it replaces coal essentially meets the 53% cut right now and not in 2050. To be clear I am not saying gas alone is the solution.  Energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, biofuels, and more are needed in large quantities as well.

While Kohlbert gets the big carbon point and the big picture right that gas has impacts but  is much cleaner than coal (and oil), she is on the edge of getting some other important details wrong.  For example, she writes: "...in the absence of a rational energy policy, there's no reason to substitute shale gas for coal.  We can combust them both!" 

Kohlbert is apparently unaware that 231 coal units over the next 10 years are closing (see yesterday's posting) and often are being replaced by gas or that coal's national market share of power generation already has fallen from 52% to 43% as gas' has increased from 16% to 24%.  Two things are driving the move from coal to gas. 

The shale gas boom has created record supply and crashed the natural gas price, making it more economic than coal in many cases.  That is quite a reason to substitute gas for coal. 

And policy is becoming rational by requiring all power plants--including old, coal fired power plants--to meet modern pollution standards for air toxics, soot, smog.  The EPA's proposed air toxic rule is met by natural gas plants but old, coal plants without modern pollution controls do not.  The EPA's proposed air toxic rule is creating a level economic playing field for all power generators and is indeed rational policy that requires power plant owners to invest in modern pollution controls or switch to gas and other power generation that meet the rule.

Kohlbert will be having a live chat tomorrow at 3pm so perhaps some of you can dialogue with her then.


  1. Concerned ScientistNovember 29, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    Boy you're really looking on the bright side today John! This article was 90% inaccurate but I suppose we have to count this as an improvement. She also did note that the EPA did not conclude that fracking had contaminated the groundawter in Pavillion, WY, only that a chemical found in frack fluids (but also in some other common products found on farms) was found in the guy's water. In fact when one digs even deeper, the chemical found was 2-BE phosphate not 2-BE and it was found in such minor quantities that it is probably not harmful.

    90% of that article was the same old debunked talking points. The Halliburton loophole, companies don't disclose what is in frack fluids, the abominable Duke Study suggesting that fracking leads to methane contamination, the NYC water supply being poisoned, and that fracking contaminates groundwater at all. These are all false and she casually states them as fact. Of course she doesn't know any better. She clearly doesn't read your blog.

  2. You are right. I am taking the positive and building on it.

    But the Howarth claim was the foundation for an environmental rejection of gas. It really is impossible to environmentally support a ban of shale gas when coal emits twice the carbon as gas. Given that fact, the environmentally responsible course of action is to reduce the impacts of gas production through regulation, enforcement, and excellence in operations and then boost the use of gas as well as other low or zero carbon options.

    In this sense the New Yorker's consignment of Howarth to oblivion is important, fundamental (more so as other important political and environmental figures/groups propagate his climate dangerous junk).

  3. I agree with your point about the consensus of recent analyses failing to support Howarth's claim. However, all of these articles merely reanalyze EPA data. They all admit significant uncertainties in emission rates at the wellhead and at other points upstream of the end-user.

    We need more data derived from a fresh round of in-field assessments conducted throughout the Marcellus play to resolve the uncertainty. Sadly, funding to support such studies - especially by independent academic researchers - is very difficult to come by.

  4. Concerned ScientistDecember 1, 2011 at 3:29 AM

    I agree with Ken above. We do need better data than what the EPA has issued. Because it is almost certainly vastly overestimating the amount of methane that leaks during operations. For all those who are hoping that the results will be that shale gas is worse than coal, it is worth revisiting one of the studies that was critical of the Howarth study that came from CERA. Here were there main findings:

    "EPA’s current methodology for estimating gas field methane emissions is not based on • methane emitted during well completions, but paradoxically is based on a data sample of methane captured during well completions.

    The assumptions underlying EPA’s methodology do not reflect current industry practices.• As a result, its estimates of methane emissions are dramatically overstated and it would be unwise to use them as a basis for policymaking. The recent Howarth study on methane emissions makes similar errors.

    If methane emissions were as high as EPA and Howarth assume, extremely hazardous • conditions would be created at the well site. Such conditions would not be permitted by industry or regulators. For this reason, if no other, the estimates are not credible.

    EPA has proposed additional regulation of hydraulically fractured gas wells under the • Clean Air Act. For the most part, the proposed regulations are already standard industry practice and are unlikely to significantly reduce upstream GHG emissions. However, measured emissions could be significantly lower than EPA-inflated estimates. The greatest benefit of the proposed regulations is likely to be better documentation of actual GHG emissions from upstream natural gas development."

    It is further worth noting that the EPA numbers came from powerpoint presentations given by a company trying to sell "green completions." The company captured methane at a well head that they said might have been flared or vented otherwise. But what was not taken into consideration is that it is already industry practice to do many of the things that the green completion people were doing. It was foolish of EPA to use these numbers from what were essentially salesman of a technology.

    If the EPA numbers were correct,rigs would explode all the time. The fact that they don't tells us that the numbers are inflated.
    CERA goes on to conclude that the actual amount of methane emitted during drilling and completion of shale wells is almost certainly a small fraction of the EPA estimate and Howarth's numbers were even higher than the EPA's due to a lack of understanding or a deliberate misrepresentation of industry practices. Here is the report:


  5. Concerned ScientistDecember 1, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    I just reread the CERA paper which is really worth reading. I made a mistake in saying that salesman were giving the presentation, but the gist of it is that the presenter or the EPA made it sound like green completions were preventing more methane from leaking than actually is in most cases. CERA states that many of the things done in the green completion are already industry practices for most companies. The EPA was assuming that all of the gas that was captured in the green completion talk would have been vented or flared in all other cases. It was my interpretation that these people were selling the technology. Sorry for the misrepresentation though! It was early in the AM. I should wait until the sun is high before posting.

    The bottom line is that the EPA estimates are likely to be highly inflated. Further review of this important issue is likely to make gas compare even more favorably to coal.