Myth 6 – Methane is less harmful to the atmosphere than other fossil fuels

We keep being told by the shale gas apologists that shale gas (methane) is less harmful to the atmosphere than other fossil fuels. They tell us this because one of the central planks of their case is that we need methane as what is called a bridging fuel – i.e. a fuel that will help us move towards a greener power generation base whilst allowing us to maintain our existing lifestyles.

For this to be the case they need to persuade us that methane is “greener” than the existing “conventional” gas or the coal it would “replace”. (We have put the “replace” in inverted commas because in the real world it doesn’t actually replace the coal, it just means the coal gets burned somewhere else. Guess who is now a major customer for the coal the US is so proud of not burning? Yes, got it in one. The UK)

Is it better than “conventional” gas?

Unfortunately it isn’t as the “Climate impact of potential shale gas production in the EU” report shows very clearly:

GHG emissions per unit of electricity generated from shale gas were estimated to be around 4 to 8% higher than for electricity generated by conventional pipeline gas from within Europe. These additional emissions arise in the pre-combustion stage, predominantly in the well completion phase when the fracturing fluid is brought back to the surface together with released methane. If emissions from well completion are mitigated, through flaring or capture, and utilised then this difference is reduced to 1 to 5%. The analysis suggests that the emissions from shale gas generation (base case) are 2 to 10% lower than emissions from electricity generated from sources of conventional pipeline gas located outside of Europe (in Russia and Algeria), and 7 to 10% lower than that of electricity generated from LNG imported into Europe.

However, under our ‘worst’ case shale gas scenario, where all flow back gases at well completion are vented, emissions from electricity generated from shale gas would be similar to the upper emissions level for electricity generated from imported LNG and for gas imported from Russia.

Given that there is no onus on the fracking companies to invest in the technology to minimise emissions it would be naive in the extreme to expect them to do it. They are, after all, there to make a profit for their shareholders.

It would be fair to say therefore that shale gas is in no way greener than imported LNG or gas imported from Russia.

So what about coal – it must be better than dirty old coal surely?

We’re afraid there is no let-off for the frackers here either

Robert Howarth from Cornell University in Ithaca, US told the BBC News

We have used the best available data [and] the conclusion is that shale gas may indeed be quite damaging to global warming, quite likely as bad or worse than coal

the same article on the BBC goes on to say :

Greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas are predominantly down to two things: carbon dioxide produced when the gas is burned, and methane that leaks out while the well is being exploited.

Figures from the US government and industry indicate that at least a third more methane leaks from shale gas extraction than from conventional wells – and perhaps more than twice as much.

Figures from this research team indicate that over a 20-year period, the net warming impact of using shale gas is worse than coal – and, perhaps more surprisingly, that conventional gas may be worse than coal as well.
Over a 100-year timeframe, conventional gas is almost certainly better than coal – but shale gas could be worse.

The precise numbers depend most on leakage rates. Dr Howarth’s group used “best practice” estimates; in the real world, therefore, the leakage and the climate impact could be even worse.

Now, news reported in January 2013 from the USA shows that:

new Colorado data that support the earlier work, as well as preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production. That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado.

What does that mean in context? The same report goes on to say:

A great deal rides on getting the number right. A study published in April by scientists at the EDF and Princeton University in New Jersey suggests that shifting to natural gas from coal-fired generators has immediate climatic benefits as long as the cumulative leakage rate from natural-gas production is below 3.2%

Yes, those figures were 9% and 3.2%.

So, unfortunately for the frackers, (but of course also for the planet too), shale gas doesn’t come out as being less harmful than either coal or conventional gas. Its potential as a bridging fuel looks poor – in fact as the Tyndall Report from the University of Manchester points out, it is likely to have a negative impact as it may well divert resources from being invested in looking for less damaging renewable alternatives.

I think we can safely say that this myth has been well and truly debunked.

Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research certainly believes so – he told the BBC

Shale gas is the same as natural gas – it is a high-carbon fuel, with around 75% of its mass made of carbon. For the UK and other wealthy nations, shale gas cannot be a transition fuel to a low-carbon future. Anyone who says differently does not understand our explicit international commitments under the Copenhagen Accord, the Cancun Agreements – or, alternatively, is bad at maths.

The UK’s commitment to make our fair contribution to reduce emissions in line with keeping global warming below a 2C rise gives a very clear global carbon budget, and hence a UK budget: in other words, how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere over this century. Here the maths is unambiguous – we have insufficient budget for the carbon we are already emitting and by the time shale gas is produced in any quantity (five to 10 years), there will be no emissions space left for it. The maths is that simple, even if the conclusion is not what we want to hear.

Another fundamental mistake made by many experts on shale gas is that they assume it is lower-carbon than coal, but this is valid only if we don’t burn the coal. In a world that is hungry for energy, any UK shale gas used here will mean we import less gas and coal – gas and coal that will simply be burnt elsewhere.

The climate does not care from which country the carbon comes from – so burn shale gas here and UK emissions may go down but global emissions will go up. Shale gas is another high-carbon fossil fuel – it just adds to the problem – in the absence of a stringent limit on total carbon emissions it will not substitute for coal.

Finally, even if the technology of “carbon capture and storage” can be made to work with gas – the level of emissions reductions will not be enough to meet our international carbon commitments. In the UK and globally, we are now reaping the reward of a decade of hypocrisy and self-delusion on climate change. We pretend we are doing something ourselves, whilst blaming others for rising emissions.

The truth is out – it is a tragedy of the commons par excellence – we are all to blame and we have left it too late for a technical fix. We are heading towards a global temperature rise of 4C to 6C this century; if we want to get off this trajectory, shale gas needs to stay in the ground and we, in the wealthy world, need to consume much less energy – now.

Of course we also need to think about the attendant pollution involved in getting the methane out of the ground in the first place.

According to Apache Corporation

A typical frack job in the Granite Wash play of Texas and Oklahoma can use around 36,000 gallons of diesel

so we are talking about some serious and concentrated local pollution as well! According to a fully laden Boeing 777-200 could fly LHR-JFK return, and then to JFK *again* on just 32,100 gallons of aviation fuel! []

So, if we get to “enjoy” fracking in Lancashire, each time they do a frack job we’ll get the equivalent pollution from over 3 transatlantic jet flights, but all concentrated in one location and at ground level. That’s not what we would call clean energy!