Natural Gas is Not Lobster

by Robert Nagle on 4/12/2012

in global warming

This one chart summarizes what climate change is about.

Below is another chart. Basically, for 10,000 years  of recorded human history, there has never been temperature variation of  than 1 degree Centigrade. (There have been other temperature variations during the last few million years, but humans haven’t been around). image

In the last 100 years, temperatures have risen .6 degree Centigrade, and another .5 degree Centigrade is in the pipeline.  It generally takes 30 or 40 years for CO2 increases to result in temperature increases (although sometimes a threshold is reached, causing more temperature increase).

In 2007 the IPCC (an international science body) laid out the scenarios from best case to worst case. A1F1 is considered the “worst case scenario”  and B1 and B2 (now thought unattainable) required fast-action to prevent this.

IPCC said that limiting temperature increase for 2100 to 2 degrees Centigrade was “attainable” though not ideal and provides a good safety margin against catastrophe.  If carbon emissions were limited to 450 parts per million by 2050, then we’d have a pretty good short at limiting the increase to 2 degrees. (Pretty good = greater than 83% chance of attaining it).

In 2009 every nation pledged to support  on this 2 degree centigrade goal even though many scientists said limiting to 2 degrees is “not good enough.”

We are currently at 394.5 PPM and rising at 1.5 PPM per year (more or less). (But this rate of increase will accelerate when icecaps and Greenland melt — due very soon. Also wildfires like what we experienced in Texas will accelerate carbon emissions). image

Our current path is worse than A1F1. Despite the talk, there has not been any significant progress towards carbon reduction (aside from Europe, and California and soon — New York).

No one can predict human response to disasters, but scientists say that even current human stupidity would recognize the wisdom of veering off  the A1F1 path. How soon? No one will know.

A prediction by the world’s leading energy group (IEA) says that every year delaying investment in renewable energy infrastructure will end up costing the world $500 billion in greater infrastructure & disaster costs.

Since 2007, multiple scientific reports have suggested that limiting carbon emissions by 450 ppm in 2050 is essentially impossible. Right now they say 550-650 ppm is a more realistic scenario, and there is considerable controversy about what temperature increase this will bring. Right now the best prediction is 2.5 – 3 degrees, but there is considerable uncertainty. The “climate sensitivity” (defined as “What happens if CO2 levels in the atmosphere double? “See chart) could possibly mean  temperature increases as high as 4 degrees or higher.image

(I belong to 350.org, a world movement that says we should have zero emissions and that the only safe way is to bring carbon levels to 350 ppm — the same levels which humans had in 1985. The 350 ppm target is recommended  by James Hansen, one of the first scientists to go public about climate change in 1980. I should stress though that reaching this goal is 1)quixotic and 2)not conclusively been shown to be necessary. Mainstream scientific opinion suggests that humans can still do well at 400 or 425 ppm, but even that could change depending on what happens in the next 20 years).

You probably don’t see these kinds of facts on CNN, newspapers or the nightly news. Yet, I pretty much can guarantee you that every single leader in today’s world is familiar with this information. Hell, even the presidents of Exxon, Phillips and BP know this information. They listen to their own experts  who tell them a)the science is not settled about climate sensitivity and b)there will be short term economic disruption if humans took countermeasures to limit carbon emissions and c)the cost of building new infrastructure to support renewable energies will be expensive.

Absolutely it will be expensive (though not as bad as Republicans suggest). But what Republicans don’t say is that the costs will be more expensive with every passing year — especially if we have to accelerate the building of all this new infrastructure.  Faith Birol, the head of IEA said that by 2020 the costs of switching to renewable energies will be 3 or 4x as expensive than if we tried it today.  There are short term political benefits to refusing to finance a transition to renewable fuels. It is the failure of politicians (and the failure of Obama –let’s not kid ourselves) to make this a priority or even to bring the subject up which is continuing this problem.

One more thing — because it relates to Texas. In the last 2 years, Republicans have started to embrace “natural gas” as a solution to climate change. So has Obama. In fact, environmentalists cautiously embraced natural gas as a “transitional solution” to fight climate change. But in the last year or two, several dramatic scientific findings have challenged that strategy, so much so that environmentalists have disavowed natural gas as even a transitional solution.

There are three separate issues with natural gas.

  1. whether the use of natural gas instead of gasoline or coal will reduce smog.
  2. whether the “fracking process” (a new process to extract natural gas from the ground) is safe, whether it uses too much water, and whether it contaminates the water supply and
  3. whether natural gas improves the carbon emission situation. Please note that carbon emission question should be broken down into 2 parts: a)how much emissions the extraction process causes (i.e., how much methane it releases during extraction) and b)how much CO2 is used when a vehicle burns it.  Many natural gas companies tout B while conveniently ignoring A.

About 1, natural gas does indeed reduce smog by about 50%. That helps people with asthma and lung disorders and probably has an effect on cancer rates.
About 2, a lot of evidence in the past few years suggests that it is not safe, uses a lot of water and contaminates the water supply. But these are fixable problems, and I believe the natural gas industry will do their utmost to minimize these bad effects. (Do I trust them? No. But at least, improvements are within the realm of scientific possibility)
About 3, studies in the last year or so suggests that switching to natural gas for power plants doesn’t reduce  greenhouse gases long term in the slightest (and some  evidence  suggests that in the short term it actually is worse than coal for  greenhouse gas emissions). It is true that B (how much CO2 is emitted when the fuel is burned) is approximately 50% lower,  but A (how much methane is released during extraction) partially or fully offsets these reduced emissions.

Last Spring, a Cornell researcher presented a paper about natural gas and climate change. It was bitterly attacked by the oil and gas industry (and honestly, because of lack of data, the paper was full of unanswered questions). But two followup studies (here and here)   have confirmed this original assessment. Just a month ago one of the world’s leading climate change scientists published a peer-reviewed paper showing that it would take 200 years for the use of natural gas to have any beneficial effects on climate change. Even if we assume minimal leakage of methane (the biggest problem with natural gas and fracking), the comparative benefits of switching to natural gas are minimal and will kick in only after it is too late. (In contrast, the benefits of a solar powered plant or a wind energy generator come within 10 years).

The army of paid cheerleaders for the natural gas industry are trying to spread the message that natural gas is better and safer and that fracking is relatively safe.  But even if everything the natural gas  industry says is true, they will never be able to show that  the idea that natural gas will  reduce carbon emissions. All they can do is point to an alleged comparative advantage (that it is less dirty than coal), but  initial studies over the last year have cast serious doubt on even that claim.

So whenever a  politician like Obama or a TV pundit tells you that natural gas is clean and safe, they are feeding you bullshit while telling you it’s lobster.

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Postscript.  I didn’t have time to talk about whether the world has enough renewable resources to power the world (even when taking into account reasonable projections of growth).  I have been reading a lot on this issue lately. Perhaps this merits a separate post, but here are two quick things to address this question. Mark Jacobsen, a Stanford climate scientists has studied this issue in depth. First, he gave a concise 5 minute interview about the subject in April 2012.

Second, he has done several analyses of energy needs and supply of renewable energies. One of his scientific analysis provided the basis for a cover story in Scientific American magazine in 2009 (download the PDF here). Also, he and Stuart Brand did a great debate at a TED conference about whether nuclear power ought to be in the mix. Jacobsen provided a lot of great charts (slides) and talking points in this lecture. Here, in this extended excerpt from a study press release, is his findings:

The raw energy sources that Jacobson found to be the most promising are, in order, wind, concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave and hydroelectric. He recommends against nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which is made of prairie grass. In fact, he found cellulosic ethanol was worse than corn ethanol because it results in more air pollution, requires more land to produce and causes more damage to wildlife.

To place the various alternatives on an equal footing, Jacobson first made his comparisons among the energy sources by calculating the impacts as if each alternative alone were used to power all the vehicles in the United States, assuming only “new-technology” vehicles were being used. Such vehicles include battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs), and “flex-fuel” vehicles that could run on a high blend of ethanol called E85.

Wind was by far the most promising, Jacobson said, owing to a better-than 99 percent reduction in carbon and air pollution emissions; the consumption of less than 3 square kilometers of land for the turbine footprints to run the entire U.S. vehicle fleet (given the fleet is composed of battery-electric vehicles); the saving of about 15,000 lives per year from premature air-pollution-related deaths from vehicle exhaust in the United States; and virtually no water consumption. By contrast, corn and cellulosic ethanol will continue to cause more than 15,000 air pollution-related deaths in the country per year, Jacobson asserted.

Because the wind turbines would require a modest amount of spacing between them to allow room for the blades to spin, wind farms would occupy about 0.5 percent of all U.S. land, but this amount is more than 30 times less than that required for growing corn or grasses for ethanol. Land between turbines on wind farms would be simultaneously available as farmland or pasture or could be left as open space.

Indeed, a battery-powered U.S. vehicle fleet could be charged by 73,000 to 144,000 5-megawatt wind turbines, fewer than the 300,000 airplanes the U.S. produced during World War II and far easier to build. Additional turbines could provide electricity for other energy needs.

“There is a lot of talk among politicians that we need a massive jobs program to pull the economy out of the current recession,” Jacobson said. “Well, putting people to work building wind turbines, solar plants, geothermal plants, electric vehicles and transmission lines would not only create jobs but would also reduce costs due to health care, crop damage and climate damage from current vehicle and electric power pollution, as well as provide the world with a truly unlimited supply of clean power.”

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

Jacobson’s research is particularly timely in light of the growing push to develop biofuels, which he calculated to be the worst of the available alternatives. In their effort to obtain a federal bailout, the Big Three Detroit automakers are increasingly touting their efforts and programs in the biofuels realm, and federal research dollars have been supporting a growing number of biofuel-research efforts.

“That is exactly the wrong place to be spending our money. Biofuels are the most damaging choice we could make in our efforts to move away from using fossil fuels,” Jacobson said. “We should be spending to promote energy technologies that cause significant reductions in carbon emissions and air-pollution mortality, not technologies that have either marginal benefits or no benefits at all”.

“Obviously, wind alone isn’t the solution,” Jacobson said. “It’s got to be a package deal, with energy also being produced by other sources such as solar, tidal, wave and geothermal power.”

Postscript 2 : I wrote this post in a hurry, not bothering to provide citations or details about the natural gas life cycle analysis. Now let me flesh out these things.

Below is a lot of information and scientific research about a very controversial topic. As of Feb 2013, 5 studies are underway to measure the overall impact that natural gas use has on climate change (and specifically the amount of methane leakage). The first one by UT Austin concluded in Jan 2013.  Here are the Key findings of the early PNAS paper, based on the best available estimates on methane emissions from the EPA:

  • Assuming the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2009 leakage rate of 2.4% (from well to city), new natural gas combined cycle power plants reduce climate impacts compared to new coal plants; this case is true as long as leakage remains under 3.2%.

  • Assuming EPA’s estimates for leak rates, compressed natural gas (CNG)-fueled vehicles are not a viable mitigation strategy for climate change because of methane leakage from natural gas production, delivery infrastructure and from the vehicles themselves. For light-duty CNG cars to become a viable short-term climate strategy, methane leakage would need to be kept below 1.6% of total natural gas produced (approximately half the current amount for well to wheels – note difference from well to city).

  • Methane emissions would need to be cut by more than two-thirds to immediately produce climate benefits in heavy duty natural gas-powered trucks.

  • At current leakage rate estimates, converting a fleet of heavy duty diesel vehicles to natural gas would result in nearly 300 years of climate damage before any benefits were achieved.

 

Here’s the original Horwarth Cornell study:

While natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning fuel that produces less carbon dioxide than coal, ecologist Robert Howarth warns that we should be more concerned about methane leaking into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2), Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well — up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.

“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”

Here is the National Center for Atmospheric Research study:

In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades — out to the mid 22nd century for the 10% leakage case. This is in accord with Hayhoe et al. (2002) and with the less well established claims of Howarth et al. (2011) who base their analysis on Global Warming Potentials rather than direct modeling of the climate….

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

2012 NOAA study surveyed selected sites and estimated that methane leakages were significantly higher than expected:

 … last month, the research team reported 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.

“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see,” says Colm Sweeney, who led the aerial component of the study as head of the aircraft programme at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder.

Whether the high leakage rates claimed in Colorado and Utah are typical across the US natural-gas industry remains unclear. The NOAA data represent a “small snapshot” of a much larger picture that the broader scientific community is now assembling, says Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Boston, Massachusetts.

Here is the Caldeira-Myrvold paper from a few months ago:

The bottom line that emerges from this “life-cycle analysis,” or LCA, said Myhrvold, is that by the time we could switch from coal to gas, there would already be so much more CO2 and methane in the atmosphere that we’d be much deeper in the hole. “It’s like living on a credit card,” he said. “It’s easy to get into a situation where it will take years and years to pay back.”

In fact, he argues, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for so long once it’s up there, a switch to natural gas would have zero effect on global temperatures by the year 2100. “If you take 40 years to switch over entirely to natural gas,” he said, “you won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.”

A switch to renewables (true renewables, that is, not corn-based ethanol) would also incur a carbon debt: it takes energy to manufacture solar panels and wind turbines too, after all. If we made that switch, according to Myhrvold and Calderia’s calculations, you wouldn’t see a change in temperatures for decades either. But by 2100, the decrease would start to kick in…..

Postscript #3. According to a 2012 IEA report (quoted and summarized here), by 2030:

The specific emissions from a gas-fired power plant will be higher than average global CO2 intensity in electricity generation by 2025, raising questions around the long-term viability of some gas infrastructure investment if climate change objectives are to be met. If near-term infrastructure development does not sufficiently consider technical flexibility, future adaptation to lower-carbon fuels and technologies will be more difficult to achieve.

Postscript #4. Here’s a great discussion by Shakeb Afsah and Kendyl Salcito about the economic and ecological aspects of the natural gas and fracking boom. Lots of data and charts. Great overall reference. It covers the issue in great depth. Basically, the low price of natural gas has caused it to replace coal in electricity generation; at the same time, it also has meant increased use in manufacturing.  So the low cost of natural gas may in fact lead to more carbon pollution. Furthermore, although switching from coal to gas produces some decrease in CO2, it can be done more dramatically and more cheaply by building infrastructure for renewable energy. Furthermore, the uncertainty about industry’s ability to contain methane leaks suggests that the CO2 reductions will still be less than predicted. They summarize:

Our analysis highlights how little the low price of shale gas has achieved in abating carbon pollution from fossil fuels. It also exposes the weaknesses in arguments of those who are keen to brand shale gas as a solution for climate change.

Natural gas deserves credit where it is due. But our findings show that there’s been a significant over-statement regarding shale gas’s contribution to cutting CO2 emissions in the recent years. This is surprising because readily available data point to the contrary.

Natural gas cannot be credited with the reductions in the US CO2 emissions observed in the last half-decade. Most reductions, nearly 90%, were caused by the decline in petroleum use, displacement of coal by mostly non-price factors, and its replacement by wind, hydro and other renewables. Where low price of natural gas saved some CO2 by displacing coal, it was quickly offset by its increased use in other sectors—highlighting the pitfall of justifying the current market for natural gas as a “bridge” or an interim phase of transition towards clean energy.

In comparison, each MWh replacement of coal by renewables eliminated a ton of CO2, adding to more than a 100 million metric tons of CO2 savings. Energy efficiency/conservation efforts as estimated by the falling economy-wide energy intensity also saved significant amount of CO2 between 2006 and 2011 (see Appendix-4). Clearly, these measures independently outperform the CO2 savings from the low-price driven coal-to-gas displacement, showing that authentic climate policies based on regulations and clean energy standards are essential for lasting cuts in CO2 emissions.

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