Friday, April 15, 2011

Publish or Perish

Earlier this week, I wrote about a alarmist study by Cornell University professor Robert W. Howarth that claimed shale gas wells have a greater impact on climate change than coal.  A reader who sent me a copy of the report (study available here).

The study draws a firm conclusion, "The (greenhouse gas) footprint of shale gas is significantly larger than that from conventional gas..."  But in reviewing the study, I'd have to agree with critics that the data is very thin and some of the assumptions are dubious.

I'm no expert on atmospheric science (and for the record, I do believe that man's actions are negatively impacting the atmosphere and that global warming is real), but I would draw your attention to the first table, on page 4, which seems to drive a bulk of the conclusions.  The table states that a Haynesville shale well releases 6,800 cubic meters of gas into the atmosphere during flowback, or 3.2% of the total gas produced during the well's lifetime.

By my rough calculations, at about $4.15/Mcf, that's about $1 million of gas.  The authors are basing their conclusions on an assumption that an otherwise cash-strapped company will throw away the first $1 million of product?  Seriously?

I also had a look through some of the references for that table, specifically on the Haynesville Shale.  The authors  are using some seriously dated material to develop some numbers.  They are also using web sites like mine (although they did not use mine) that aggregate information - in this case, about decline curves - rather than pulling data directly from producers.  Lazy!  Most of the data was from 2009 and early 2010, which in the lifespan of the Haynesville Shale was eons ago.

These are just a couple of complaints, but they make it difficult for me to objectively evaluate the entire study.  Where there's smoke, there's usually fire.  I know Professor Howarth is a critic of shale drilling, and the bias is apparent in this document.

In the world of academics, the mantra is "publish or perish."  Professors gain prestige and job security by publishing studies.  But they are not always the ones collecting data or running the numbers. When this study officially appears, I hope there will be a thoughtful discussion of the issues raised and an accurate accounting of the numbers that lead to the study's conclusions.  Energy industry advocate Energy in Depth has already published a rebuttal, but given the organization's industry pedigree, it will be seen as lacking objectivity.  Hopefully others will chime in.


Downtown Resident said...

Just more junk science from the flat earth no growth left.

Robert Hutchinson said...

The Left has no exclusive on "junk science."

Robert Hutchinson said...

For some reason this comment didn't post correctly by the original author, so I have re-posted it:

The only area where this paper differentiates between shale wells and "conventional gas wells" is in their estimate of methane emissions during fracing and flow-back. They cite five figures for that, and these are to my mind the heart of the paper. Of these, two just reference the "EPA", so can't be checked. Two more refer to short PowerPoints done by Anadarko employees, one of whom has already emailed me to say that the data used was incorrect. The most important figure, however, the one with by far the largest claimed emissions, is for methane emissions from the Haynesville Shale, where the "reference" appears to be just a scout report listing nothing but assorted initial production figures for wells completed in early 2009. It's not relevant to the number they're using, which thus appears to be unsupported.

There's no direct correlation between reported production and any volumes of gas that may have been produced during a short "flow-back" period. But more importantly, there is absolutely no correlation between the initial production figures cited in the scout report the paper refers to, and what an operator does with their gas. So you can't use initial production figures to estimate methane emissions, since those depend entirely on an operator's actions, not the well's productivity. Given the value of the gas involved, it's not surprising that its almost always sold commercially, not vented or flared. Hence actual methane emissions are no higher for shale wells than for conventional gas wells.

Consequently this paper is essentially pointless, if not downright fraudulent. They have no stated source for their data on the paper's key point. Check the reference and you'll see - it's available online at Good luck finding methane emissions data for Haynesville shale gas wells during the flow-back period given - there's nothing there. The number they are using appears to have come out of thin air.

John Young