Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A New Environmental Fear about Natural Gas

A new environmental fear about natural gas - and shale gas in particular - is being pushed through a new environmental study to be published by a Cornell University professor in May.  Previewed by the New York Times (with more information here) and rebutted by energy industry group Energy in Depth, the study claims that natural gas is more harmful for the environment that people believe because of "fugitive gas" released during the commercial life cycle of natural gas.

From what I have read in articles about the unreleased study, it combines real concerns (venting, flaring and leaks) with thin data and some questionable methodologies.

Venting, flaring and leaks are real problems, but the problem is quantifying the loss.  There is much dispute about how much gas is actually lost.  But what people forget is that it is not gas producers that flare gas, it is usually oil producers who are interested in the oil below the gas.  They don't feel the need to capture and transport the gas to market.  Same with venting, especially from coal mines.  Gas occurs naturally with coal but is a hazard to the miners (see: Upper Big Branch mine explosion).  Venting it to the atmosphere makes the mines safer, but it releases methane directly into the atmosphere.  But remember, it is not gas producers venting gas.

The leak issue is also real, but it's fixable.  Aging infrastructure is a problem across the country, but leaky pipelines are not the fault of shale gas.  Pipelines require constant investment, maintenance and monitoring.  State regulators and transport companies need to be vigilant about pipeline safety.  Many companies know that it is cheaper to pay a fine than take corrective measures.  If the state or federal government has the ability (and the guts) to shut down failing pipelines, thereby costing transporters REAL MONEY, the companies will take notice.

Bottom line is that the problems pointed out in the study are fixable, a fact acknowledged in the study, apparently.  Unfortunately, this conclusion is more in the fine print, well below the headline.

But the study is also working with limited data from a very short time frame, since most unconventional gas plays are very new.  It is hard to draw conclusions about decades of potential impact based on just a few years of data.

Additionally, the study's authors used an unusually short window to extrapolate the atmospheric impacts.  The study uses a 20  year window versus a more typical 100 year window for similar studies.  This is important because methane, which can trap more heat than carbon, burns off much faster than carbon and ultimately has a lower climate impact over the long-term.  By using a short time frame, the authors skewed the results.

The study was published by a critic of Marcellus Shale drilling who is specifically opposed to hydraulic fracturing.  The author claims that more methane is released from shale drilling because of the flowback of gas to the surface after fracturing a well.  As a result, media reports of the unreleased have already morphed into a criticism of shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (two quick headlines: "Natural Gas: Worse Than Coal?" and "Natural Gas from Shale Contributes to Global Warming, Researchers Find").

Unfortunately, these headlines will be all that most people read of the study and it will continue to form a negative opinion of shale drilling in the minds of the multitudes who don't have the time to dig deeper to gain a better understanding.

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