Fracking, Methane, and Global Warming
Underlying the whole issue of fracking is the impact of extending the widespread use of hydrocarbon fuel into the next century. We have at most 30 years before the current rate of global temperature rise reaches a critical tipping point that will result in uncontrollable changes to the climate of our planet which we cannot reverse. There is no "bridge to the future" being built. Wind, solar and other green energy technologies which we should be aggressively pursuing and implementing are being ignored in favor of the single-minded pursuit of gas and oil.
The unregulated fracking rush is coming under increasing scrutiny as science and research struggle to catch up with the premature use of this process to exploit gas bearing shale. In the absence of a national energy policy, profit driven corporate priorities are determining the course of energy and technology development with scant regard for consequences to the coming generation. Nor has the immediate and widespread impact on the ecology and on the health and welfare of people currently living within shale zones been made a prominent and central consideration. The toll on the life-giving cycles of our planet increases as new technologies enable us to recklessly pursue ever-dwindling carbon resources. An unresponsive, unrepresentative political system corrupted by gas, coal, and oil money is enabling our continued reliance on fossil fuel into the next century despite alarms being sounded by the scientific community about global warming and the imperative to adopt green alternatives. The destruction wrought by fracking, coastal oil drilling, mountain top removal, and tar sands extraction needs to end and the transition to clean renewable energy must begin NOW before we engineer another Permian extinction.
Fracking and Climate Change
Natural gas from fracking could be 'dirtier' than coal, Cornell professors find
By Stacey Shackford
Cornell Chronical Online, April 11, 2011
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."
Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, Tony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, and Renee Santoro, a research technician in ecology and evolutionary biology, analyzed data from published sources, industry reports and even Powerpoint presentations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
They compared estimated emissions for shale gas, conventional gas, coal (surface-mined and deep-mined) and diesel oil, taking into account direct emissions of CO2 during combustion, indirect emissions of CO2 necessary to develop and use the energy source and methane emissions, which were converted to equivalent value of CO2 for global warming potential.
The study is the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from shale gas, and one of the few exploring the greenhouse gas footprints of conventional gas drilling. Most studies have used EPA emission estimates from 1996, which were updated in November 2010 when it was determined that greenhouse gas emissions of various fuels are higher than previously believed.
"We are highlighting unconventional gas because it is a contemporary problem for us in upstate New York, and because there is a big difference between developing gas from an unconventional well and a conventional well, for the mere reason that unconventional wells are bigger," Ingraffea said.
He noted that the hydraulic fracturing process lends itself to more leakage because it takes more time to drill the well, requires more venting and produces more flowback waste, he said.
"A lot of the data we used are really low quality, but I'm confident they are the best available," Howarth said. "We want to go out into the Marcellus Shale and do micrometeorological fluxes of methane at the time of venting and get a real number on this, which has never been done. We're optimistic we can get funding and do that over the next year."
"We've tried to be conservative all along; we're not trying to be hyperbolic in our statements," Ingraffea said.
"We do not intend for you to accept what we've reported on today as the definitive scientific study in regards to this question. It's clearly not," he added. "What we're hoping to do with this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before. In my opinion, corporate business plans superseded national energy strategy."
Stacey Shackford is a staff writer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
| April story index | Cornell Chronicle Online
By Ben Geman
04/10/11 01:40 PM ET
Cornell University professors will soon publish research that concludes natural gas produced with a drilling method called “hydraulic fracturing” contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more.
The conclusion is explosive because natural gas enjoys broad political support – including White House backing – due to its domestic abundance and lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned than other fossil fuels.
Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth, however, argues that development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing – dubbed “fracking” – brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production.
Enough, he argues, to negate the carbon advantage that gas has over coal and oil when they’re burned for energy, because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas.
“The [greenhouse gas] footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years,” states the upcoming study from Howarth, who is a professor of ecology and environmental biology, and other Cornell researchers.
The Hill obtained a pre-publication version of the study, which is slated to run in the journal Climatic Change.
It is drawing immediate pushback from industry-aligned experts, who question key assumptions.
The environmental effects of producing gas from shale rock formations – in states including Pennsylvania, Texas and Arkansas – is drawing careful scrutiny as development booms.
The Energy Information Administration – which is the Energy Department’s statistical arm – estimates that shale gas will account for 45 percent of total U.S. gas supply in 2035, up from 14 percent in 2009.
The study concludes that shale gas developed through fracking carries a higher greenhouse gas footprint because the “fugitive” methane emissions at the fracking sites are greater than releases from conventional gas wells.
Fugitive methane from other steps in the development process – transport, storage and so forth – are comparable to conventionally produced gas, the study states.
In essence, the Cornell study argues that methane emissions from these shale gas projects mean that shale gas ultimately brings climate consequences comparable to coal over a century, and worse than coal over two decades.
That’s because the potent methane emissions in the production process more than compensate for the fact that burning natural gas for power brings far fewer carbon dioxide emissions that burning coal. The study also notes that, depending on the estimates used, conventionally produced gas may add more to climate change than coal over the 20-year horizon.
But experts from the energy consulting firm M.J. Bradley & Associates are questioning the study.
“It needs to be understood as a study that has several key assumptions that are highly uncertain or based on limited data points,” said Christopher Van Atten, a senior vice president with the firm.
M.J. Bradley’s client base includes gas industry clients.
Among Van Atten’s criticisms, the study is overstating methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas, he argues. Van Atten, in an email, notes that the paper assigns a higher global warming potential to methane than the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He also questions the report’s emphasis on the climatic effects of methane over a 20-year horizon.
“They focus some of their results on a 20 year period which is not particularly relevant in terms of climate change. Methane only lasts in the atmosphere for about a decade, co2 remains in the atmosphere for about a century. By focusing on the shorter timeframe, they show a greater impact from the shorter lived chemical,” he said.
But the study notes that “the 20-year horizon is critical, given the need to reduce global warming in coming decades.”
Fracking involves high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand into rock formations, which opens cracks that enable trapped gas to flow. Use of fracking in shale formations is enabling expanded production, but bringing concerns about water contamination along with it.
Natural gas enjoys political support from the Obama administration and many lawmakers. Obama praised natural gas – while highlighting federal efforts to ensure fracking is done safely – during a high-profile energy speech late last month.
“Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves –- perhaps a century’s worth of reserves, a hundred years worth of reserves -– in the shale under our feet,” Obama said at Georgetown University.
Obama has touted the potential of natural gas for use in vehicles, in addition to its role in power generation (natural gas currently produces around a fifth of U.S. electricity).
His proposed “clean energy standard,” which would require utilities to greatly expand the supply of power from low-carbon sources, includes partial credit for natural gas.
More broadly, many gas supporters see domestic reserves as a “bridge” fuel while alternative energy sources are brought into wider use.
Howarth’s study questions this idea.
“The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” the study states.
But Van Atten also notes that gas has other advantages over coal as an energy source, due to its lower emissions of conventional pollutants including nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
The study cautions that the research is not meant to justify continued use of oil and coal, but rather to show that using shale gas as a substitute might not provide the desired checks on global warming.
Howarth and Cornell engineering Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, who also worked on the study, acknowledged uncertainties in the nexus between shale gas and global warming in a presentation last month.
“We do not intend for you to accept what we reported on today as the definitive scientific study with regard to this question. It is clearly not. We have pointed out as many times as we could that we are basing this study on in some cases questionable data,” Ingraffea said at a mid-March seminar, which is available for viewing on Howarth’s website.
“What we are hoping to do by this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before, in my opinion, corporate business plans superceded national energy strategy,” he added.
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The Methane Problem. Fracking will add significantly to the climactic effects of warming-driven methane release
Thawing permafrost vents gases to worsen warming
by Seth Borenstein / Associated Press
Nov 30, 2011
Massive amounts of greenhouse gases trapped below thawing permafrost
will likely seep into the air over the next several decades,
accelerating and amplifying global warming, scientists warn.
Those heat-trapping gases under the frozen Arctic ground may be a bigger factor in global warming than the cutting down of forests, and a scenario that climate scientists hadn't quite accounted for, according to a group of permafrost experts. The gases won't contribute as much as pollution from power plants, cars, trucks and planes, though.
The permafrost scientists predict that over the next three decades a total of about 45 billion metric tons of carbon from methane and carbon dioxide will seep into the atmosphere when permafrost thaws during summers. That's about the same amount of heat-trapping gas the world spews during five years of burning coal, gas and other fossil fuels
And the picture is even more alarming for the end of the century. The scientists calculate that about than 300 billion metric tons of carbon will belch from the thawing Earth from now until 2100.
Adding in that gas means that warming would happen "20 to 30 percent faster than from fossil fuel emissions alone," said Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. "You are significantly speeding things up by releasing this carbon."
Usually the first few to several inches of permafrost thaw in the summer, but scientists are now looking at up to 10 feet of soft unfrozen ground because of warmer temperatures, he said. The gases come from decaying plants that have been stuck below frozen ground for millennia.
Schuur and 40 other scientists in the Permafrost Carbon Research Network met this summer and jointly wrote up their findings, which were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
"The survey provides an important warning that global climate warming is likely to be worse than expected," said Jay Zwally, a NASA polar scientis t who wasn't part of the study. "Arctic permafrost has been like a wild card."
When the Nobel Prize-winning panel of climate scientists issued its last full report in 2007, it didn't even factor in trapped methane and carbon dioxide from beneath the permafrost. Diplomats are meeting this week in South Africa to find ways of curbing human-made climate change.
Schuur and others said increasing amounts of greenhouse gas are seeping out of permafrost each year. Some is methane, which is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.
In a recent video, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Katey Walter Anthony, a study co-author, is shown setting leaking methane gas on fire with flames shooting far above her head.
"Places like that are all around," Anthony said in a phone interview. "We're tapping into old carbon that has been locked up in the ground for 30,000 to 40,000 years."
That triggers what Anthony and other scientists call a feedback cycle. The world warms, mostly because of human-made greenhouse gases. That thaws permafrost, releasing more natural greenhouse gas, augmenting the warming.
There are lots of unknowns and a large margin of error because this is a relatively new issue with limited data available, the scientists acknowledge.
"It's very much a seat-of-the-pants expert assessment," said Stanford University's Chris Field, who wasn't involved in the new report.
The World Meteorological Organization this week said the worst of the warming in 2011 was in the northern areas - where there is permafrost - and especially Russia. Since 1970, the Arctic has warmed at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the globe.
The thawing permafrost also causes trees to lean - scientists call them "drunken trees" - and roads to buckle. Study co-author F. Stuart Chapin III said when he first moved to Fairbanks the road from his house to the University of Alaska had to be resurfaced once a decade.
"Now it gets resurfaced every year due to thawing permafrost," Chapin said.
The cause: climate change thawing of sub-sea permafrost
Republished from a March, 2010 press release by the National Science Foundation.
Thawing of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf
A section of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, according to the findings of an international research team led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov.
The research results, published in the March 5, 2010 edition of the journal Science, show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is starting to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.
Equal to the Rest of the Oceans Combined!
"The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans," said Shakhova, a researcher at UAF's International Arctic Research Center. "Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap."
The Power of Methane
Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It is released from previously frozen soils in two ways. When the organic material (which contains carbon) stored in permafrost thaws, it begins to decompose and, under anaerobic conditions, gradually releases methane. Methane can also be stored in the seabed as methane gas or methane hydrates and then released as subsea permafrost thaws. These releases can be larger and more abrupt than those that result from decomposition.
The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a methane-rich area that encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of seafloor in the Arctic Ocean. It is more than three times as large as the nearby Siberian wetlands, which have been considered the primary Northern Hemisphere source of atmospheric methane. Shakhova's research results show that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is already a significant methane source, releasing 7 teragrams of methane yearly, which is as much as is emitted from the rest of the ocean. A teragram is equal to about 1.1 million tons.
Methane Releases Could Accelerate
"Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of destabilization already," she said. "If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions may not be teragrams, it would be significantly larger."
Shakhova notes that the Earth's geological record indicates that atmospheric methane concentrations have varied between about .3 to .4 parts per million during cold periods to .6 to .7 parts per million during warm periods. Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years, she said. Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher.
Repeated Submergence and Emergence
The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a relative frontier in methane studies. The shelf is shallow, 50 meters (164 feet) or less in depth, which means it has been alternately submerged or terrestrial, depending on sea levels throughout Earth's history. During the Earth's coldest periods, it is a frozen arctic coastal plain, and does not release methane. As the Earth warms and sea level rises, it is inundated with seawater, which is 12-15 degrees warmer than the average air temperature. "It was thought that seawater kept the East Siberian Arctic Shelf permafrost frozen," Shakhova said. "Nobody considered this huge area."
International Cooperation in Research
"This study is a testament to sustained, careful observations and to international cooperation in research," said Henrietta Edmonds of the National Science Foundation, which partially funded the study. "The Arctic is a difficult place to get to and to work in, but it is important that we do so in order to understand its role in global climate and its response and contribution to ongoing environmental change. It is important to understand the size of the reservoir--the amount of trapped methane that potentially could be released--as well as the processes that have kept it "trapped" and those that control the release. Work like this helps us to understand and document these processes."
Historic Methane Studies Stopped at the Coast
Earlier studies in Siberia focused on methane escaping from thawing terrestrial permafrost. Semiletov's work during the 1990s showed, among other things, that the amount of methane being emitted from terrestrial sources decreased at higher latitudes. But those studies stopped at the coast. Starting in the fall of 2003, Shakhova, Semiletov and the rest of their team took the studies offshore. From 2003 through 2008, they took annual research cruises throughout the shelf and sampled seawater at various depths and the air 10 meters above the ocean. In September 2006, they flew a helicopter over the same area, taking air samples at up to 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) in the atmosphere. In April 2007, they conducted a winter expedition on the sea ice.
Discovering the Subsea Methane Source
They found that more than 80 percent of the deep water and more than 50 percent of surface water had methane levels more than eight times that of normal seawater. In some areas, the saturation levels reached more than 250 times that of background levels in the summer and 1,400 times higher in the winter. They found corresponding results in the air directly above the ocean surface. Methane levels were elevated overall and the seascape was dotted with more than 100 hotspots. This, combined with winter expedition results that found methane gas trapped under and in the sea ice, showed the team that the methane was not only being dissolved in the water, it was bubbling out into the atmosphere.
These findings were further confirmed when Shakhova and her colleagues sampled methane levels at higher elevations. Methane levels throughout the Arctic are usually 8 to 10 percent higher than the global baseline. When they flew over the shelf, they found methane at levels another 5 to 10 percent higher than the already elevated Arctic levels.
Shallow Water Vulnerability
The East Siberian Arctic Shelf, in addition to holding large stores of frozen methane, is more of a concern because it is so shallow. In deep water, methane gas oxidizes into carbon dioxide before it reaches the surface. In the shallows of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, methane simply doesn't have enough time to oxidize, which means more of it escapes into the atmosphere. That, combined with the sheer amount of methane in the region, could add a previously uncalculated variable to climate models.
The Enormous Impact of Minor Thawing
"The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times," Shakhova said. "The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict."
Semiletov hold joint appointments with the Pacific Oceanological
Institute, part of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of
Sciences. Their collaborators on this paper include Anatoly Salyuk,
Vladimir Joussupov and Denis Kosmach, all of the Pacific Oceanological
Institute, and Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University.
Shakhova, Semiletov and collaborators from 12 institutions in five countries plan to continue their studies in the region, tracking the source of the methane emissions and drilling into the seafloor in an effort to estimate how much methane is stored there.
International Energy Agency Finds ‘Safe’ Gas Fracking Would Destroy A Livable Climate
By Joe Romm
May 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm
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.
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. http://www.cleanbreak.ca/2011/05/26/higher-oil-prices-arent-leading-to-higher-clean-energy-investments-sadly-its-quite-the-opposite/
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.
Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere Absent A Carbon Price AND Strong Standards To Reduce Methane Leakage
New Study: You Can’t Slow Projected Warming With Gas, You Need ‘Rapid and Massive Deployment’ of Zero-Carbon Power.
Must-Read Caldeira: ‘The Only Ethical Path Is To Stop Using The Atmosphere As A Waste Dump For Greenhouse Gas Pollution’