Dueling Research: Fracked Shale Gas Worse For Climate Change Than Coal! Or, The Opposite!

Categories: The Environment

In the rarefied halls of Cornell, the atmospheric-science equivalent of the gauntlet has been thrown. At stake is nothing less than the suitability of one of the most plentiful, domestically producible forms of energy in North America to replace a fuel speeding climate change and emitting tons of known carcinogens.

The question: Is unconventional gas extracted from formations like the Barnett Shale of North Texas the cleaner-burning bridge fuel to a new, sustainable age? Or does its production contribute massive quantities of a potent greenhouse gas sufficient to trump the mighty emissions of coal?

Depends on which side of that hall in Ithaca you ask. Last spring, research by Dr. Robert Howarth in the journal Climate Change Letters advanced the latter theory -- that as much as 8 percent of the produced methane escapes into the atmosphere at some point during its perambulation from bore hole to oven burner, or whatever end use, and may have a greenhouse-gas footprint up to twice the size of coal's.

The study stunned the clean energy community, chiefly because it was so counter-intuitive. Not only does natural gas release none of the mercury and other poisons found in coal, it emits a fraction of the carbon dioxide when burned. But methane, the study points out, is a far more potent greenhouse gas, and fugitive emissions of it may render null any benefits it has as a low-carbon fuel. Howarth's takeaway: What kinda bridge fuel has a worse greenhouse footprint than coal? A shitty kind, that's what.

So, the anti-fracking crowd had a brand-new arrow in its quiver. And yet another item was added to the laundry-list of problems and unknowns associated with hydraulic fracturing for North Texas suburbs and towns all over America wrestling with the shale play.

Then a colleague of Howarth's at Cornell, Dr. Lawrence Cathles, published a study in the same journal last week, looking to torpedo his work. Specifically, Cathles challenges Howarth's fugitive emissions estimate. Howarth's number, Cathles notes, assumes the venting of huge quantities of valuable gas during the phases when the drill bit and well bore are removed, but before a well hits peak production -- something an energy company has no economic or safety incentive to do.

Cathles also questions Howarth's 20-year time frame because methane has a shorter half-life in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, which tends to accumulate.

He was further puzzled by Howarth's choice not to evaluate coal and shale gas based on total emissions of both for electricity generation. After all, it's one of the few things coal is good for, and it accounts for most of its use. His approach, Cathles claims, ignores all the benefits of modern, efficient gas-fired power plants replacing the old, inefficient coal-fired plants like Dallas-based Luminant's Monticello and Big Brown plants.

All told, Cathles suggests, shale and other types of unconventional gas have half to a third the greenhouse footprint of coal.

Apparently there was some sort of mix-up over at the journal Climate Change. Howarth's reply to Cathles was supposed to run alongside the new study. It didn't, so if you're interested in reading a shorter version of his response (and Cathles response to his response) check out The New York Times's Dot Earth blog.

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Steve T
Steve T

"Every form of refuge has its price"; and every form of energy production does also.  Nothing but sunlight (and its dirivitive,wind) is free; but ouside of organic processes like eating, it has to be converted mechanically to obtain energy. So, there's waste and some of it is pollutiing.  We built a civilization not thinking about these things; now we have to, and there are no easy answers.


Cows are a much larger methane concern than 8% of fracking operations. Seriously.

Isnt it obvious
Isnt it obvious

Gas is the product they are trying to sell to you.  Does coca cola allow "up to" 8% of their product to escape?  The industry does every thing they can to retain every cubic inch of burnable gas to sell to you.  It is their PRODUCT.  There is more methane coming out of the Dallas sewage plants than will ever be "lost" due to drilling.  There is more methane coming out of the Dallas dump than will ever be released from drilling.  There is more methane coming out of the Trinity bottoms south of town than will ever be released from drilling.  There is probably more methane coming out of the butts of the 6 million people in the DFW area daily than will be lost from drilling operations.  There does not seem to be much concern about those sources.  Maybe we should ban mexican food, garbage, poop, and natural decay.  Good luck with that.


Bringing it all back home....the City of Dallas has a policy of decreasing greenhouse gases as a result of its own operations. Does leasing city land to gas drilling operators who then release tons of new GHGs count toward that goal? Because that's what's being contemplated now. There's no question that gas drilling emits a lot of methane, and that its at least 20 -30 times more potent than CO2. Allowing drilling in town will see emissions skyrocket. Does it really matter if gas or coal is more awful  - Dallas isn't allowing strip mining for coal. It's considering opening the floodgates to gas drilling. it shouldn't do so unless it plans to mitigate the emissions from that drilling.


don't present them with facts they can't handle them

Matthew Gunter
Matthew Gunter

If we could just figure out a way to get those emissions to hover over Tom Hicks' house, or to drift to Frisco, the city council would have my full support. Sadly, like Barbaro's leg, science hasn't gotten to the point yet where we can spread the filth only to those making money off it and instead it will hover over South Dallas, Oak Cliff, and East Dallas. I'd say West Dallas, but all we have there is an expensive bridge, some pawn shops, and scrap metal recycling.....so I really doubt they care.

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