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Studies sweep away clean image of the blue flame

July 18, 2011
The Blue Flame of Natural Gas

Natural Gas - Not As Clean As It Seems

“Shale gas promoters have now overhyped, overdrilled and overproduced a fundamentally dirty but abundant resource that has now created a veritable natural gas glut.”  So says award-winning author and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, a contributing editor to The Tyee out of British Columbia.  Here he tracks a series of five startling studies which collectively “do away with” the dated image of natural gas as being in any way better for clean skies or climate than other dirty fossil fuels.  Here are excerpts from Nikiforuk’s latest  “Energy and Equity” column, “Studies sweep- away clean image of the blue flame,” from July 7, 2011.

View full article here:

For years now, everyone thought that natural gas was cleaner than coal and more benevolent than oil. The blue flame just burned purely and wasn’t nearly as complicated or carboniferous as a lump of, well, bituminous coal.

And so groups like the Natural Gas Supply Association advertised the blue flame as “the cleanest of all fossil fuels” and a brave climate change fighter to boot. Burning gas produced 50 per cent fewer carbon emissions and just decreased “harmful pollution levels” all around.

Nikiforuk asserts, “The whole unbelievable shale story emerged piece meal from a series of often startling reports, all populated with unconventional facts. (Dirty energy is all about dirty numbers.)  Credit for the earliest debunking of the “bridge fuel” myth goes to Al Almendariz:

 Al Armendariz at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and now a regional manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, got things off to a roaring start in 2009. That’s when he calculated that the compressors and equipment required to drill the Barnett Shale (a 5000 square mile region in north Texas) released more smog-forming pollutants than all the cars, trucks and airplanes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The engineer also recorded that 7,700 wells in the Barnett Shale sent more CO2 and methane into the air than two 750 MW coal-fired power plants.

Nikiforuk credits some nations and states with good sense:  “France and New Jersey have banned shale gas in their watersheds, while Quebec declared a moratorium to protect its farmland. The European Union is thinking about restricting the difficult resource with an energy quality directive.”  In B.C., two independent MLAs have demanded a study on fracked gas — a demand which, Nikiforuk says, “every citizen should support.”

Meanwhile he goes on to track four more studies which have contradicted energy industry claims about that clean blue flame:

Next came an eye popper from British Columbia. The province claims vast reserves of shale gas, but many sources such as the Horn River Basin contain up to 12 per cent CO2. (That’s about six times dirtier than conventional gas.) Venting the climate warmer to the atmosphere, the industry’s traditional form of garbage disposal, will acidify the ocean, unsettle the climate (and we’re well on our way) and kill the province’s climate change strategy.

A 2010 study by Mark Jaccard and Brad Griffin for the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions concluded that adding 4 million tonnes (MT) a year to the province’s GHG inventory, at time when the province needs to subtract millions of tonnes, means “that the B.C. government will sustain a 20-year Canadian climate policy tradition — failure to meet its GHG emission targets.”

“Then came a real myth buster from Cornell University”:

The ecologist Robert Howarth crunched some numbers and concluded that methane leaks and venting from shale gas wells (3.6 per cent to 7.9 per cent of production or twice as much as conventional gas) made the resource’s carbon footprint 20 per cent to 100 per cent greater than coal over a 20-year period. (Methane has a 72 to 105 times greater impact than CO2 over a 20-year timeframe, but only a 25 to 33 times greater impact over a 100 year timeframe.)

Howarth concluded that a lot the methane burped into the atmosphere during flow-back from fracking fluids and well completion.

Green promises turn brown

Finally, some bigger-picture policy thinking looked at real world consequences of the natural gas industry’s wholesale, aggressive extraction and marketing of gas fracked from shale:

Around the same time, a U.S. energy think tank (Resources for the Future) looked at the abundance of shale gas and concluded that a free market policy wouldn’t generate many green benefits for a bunch of reasons.

“We find that abundant natural gas supplies increase use in most sectors of the economy, but do nothing by themselves to create a bridge to a low-carbon future. Without a carbon policy in place, abundant and inexpensive natural gas fosters greater energy consumption and displaces the use of nuclear and renewable resources to generate electric power. Even though coal and oil use fall, the result is higher CO2 emissions.”

Canadian scientist David Hughes’ paper this July for the Post Carbon Institute gets Nikforuk’s vote for the current chapter debunking this unconventional resource:

Now the last chapter in this unconventional story, for the time being, hails from Canada’s David Hughes, a former NRCAN scientist who has studied natural gas and coal most of his life. In a July paper for the Post Carbon Institute, Hughes contrasted Howarth’s peer reviewed science with a recent PowerPoint constructed by the National Energy Technology Lab (NETL). The NETL, where standards must be falling, contested Howarth’s findings but didn’t provide a lot of source data.

When Hughes checked out the NETL findings, he found that the agency had low balled estimates for methane leaks and overstated production from shale gas reserves. Once these corrections had been made both the NETL and Howarth studies arrived at the same bloody conclusion: “shale gas has higher emissions than coal on a 20 year basis, and equal or lower emissions on a 100 year basis.”

“Same bloody conclusion” pretty much sums it up.  Take that, Clean Skies Foundation.  Read Nikiforuk’s previous Tyee stories here.

  1. George Gettum permalink
    December 23, 2011 7:46 pm

    If drilling for oil and natural gas in America keeps American soldiers from having to fight and die protecting U.S. access to foreign oil resources, then I am all for it. Warfare–especially modern warfare–is more polluting and emits more GHG than probably any other modern activity. Be careful what you wish for. If you don’t think our government isn’t going to ensure America’s lifeline to vital fossil fuels stays open, you are blind.

    I agree America needs to wean itself away from fossil fuels. Global Peak Oil is a real phenomenon. By the end of the 21st Century, much of the remaining fossil fuels will be used up. This includes coal, oil, and natural gas. There are amazing technologies being developed that will help with this transition. However, it is not going to happen over night. Until then, fossil fuels will remain important to society.


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