Gas From Fracking More Damaging to Climate Than Coal?

I’m pretty amazed that no one looked into the greenhouse gas impact of fracking until now. One of the big rationales for fracking, which is already controversial due to reports of damage to aquifers, is that it was abundant in North America and also produces comparatively little in the way of carbon emissions.

The problem, per a study soon to be published by Cornell University, is fracking results in the release of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, apparently enough to undercut the claims that it is relatively “clean”. From NewsWise:

Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal, according to a Cornell study published in the May issue of the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters.

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, 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.”….

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.

“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.”

From The Hill (hat tip reader Thomas R):

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….

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.

The report in the New York Times on the same study is understated even if factually accurate (note the title says “studies” but the second study depends on the Cornell research for some of its key data):

Natural gas, with its reputation as a linchpin in the effort to wean the nation off dirtier fossil fuels and reduce global warming, may not be as clean over all as its proponents say.

Even as natural gas production in the United States increases and Washington gives it a warm embrace as a crucial component of America’s energy future, two coming studies try to poke holes in the clean-and-green reputation of natural gas. They suggest that the rush to develop the nation’s vast, unconventional sources of natural gas is logistically impractical and likely to do more to heat up the planet than mining and burning coal.

The problem, the studies suggest, is that planet-warming methane, the chief component of natural gas, is escaping into the atmosphere in far larger quantities than previously thought, with as much as 7.9 percent of it puffing out from shale gas wells, intentionally vented or flared, or seeping from loose pipe fittings along gas distribution lines. This offsets natural gas’s most important advantage as an energy source: it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels and releases lower carbon dioxide emissions.

Obama had been planning to construct 9 to 12 nuclear reactors in addition to emphasizing shale gas as ways to reduce carbon emissions. Fukushima is going to make it harder if not impossible to get nuclear plants built, and fracking is looking less attractive the more scrutiny it gets. Looks like it’s time to develop Plan B.

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  1. Toby

    While we require money-profits from energy production we are going to make stupid, short-sighted decisions.

    While our thinking on energy production remains decoupled from the global environment generally, and doesn’t take our best knowledge of planetary carrying capacity into account, we are going to make stupid, short-sighted decisions.

    Hand, the Invisible is not going to clear this mess up for us. Neither are aliens, neither is anyone’s Second Coming. Our rationale, our modus operandi, is upside down. Until we address that, broadly and deeply, we are digging our own graves and paying banks for the pleasure of it.

    1. Hal H

      Yes, we need a major paradigm shift in the public/political consciousness to start pushing the externalities back into the sources and market prices.

      1. Toby

        Your agreement disagrees with my broader meaning. You say the market can deliver useful information via the price system if externalities are included. I no longer believe a market, even including externalities (how ever such is to be achieved), being motivated by competition and ‘winner takes all,’ is the mechanism humanity needs to transition out of the dire straits it is now in. However:

        If a money can be devised that allows sustainable abundance, sharing and cooperating under its aegis, and

        can accurately reflect energy expenditure and resource-usage (including recycling and environmental stress as far as our knowledge allows), and

        can sit happily side-by-side with an economy that no longer requires money-circuits as generated by waged-labour, and

        needs neither usury nor a punitive concept of debt, and

        allows a deep and broad democratic system capable of arresting centralizing power-accumulation and intransigent societal divisions before they set it,

        then my ears are open. The goal is democracy combined with a sustainable socioeconomics. Worthy, understandable, wanted by everyone. What this goal demands of our social and economic systems should be implemented expeditiously, regardless of our prejudices. I gravely doubt it will happen before terrible collapse, or even after, but I enjoy typing so … this!

        “Market” is one of those myths we are still very drunk on. Picking it apart and looking at it dispassionately is a challenge we must confront. The ‘egalitarianism’ that is part of its myth, though far from its reality, interests me greatly. Whether the carrot of riches and the stick of poverty can ever deliver egalitarianism is for history to decide. My money is on: No.

        1. Hal H

          A couple of deep topics at least. Let me say just a brief couple of points on the narrower (and crucial) question of whether externalities could be roughly determined, in order that they could be imposed as fees (per emission, etc.).

          See, *if* externalities were worked out even roughly, and then imposed as costs to the producers (utilities in our example), then it would have a drastic effect on whether harmful power sources are used in the business-as-usual manner, as today. Drastic change.

          A bit of what I wrote on my blog yesterday about this:

          “The full costs of an energy source includes all the costs — health costs such as asthma and deaths from coal burning, coal-emitted mercury contamination of soil and people [health costs], [conservative estimates of the ]massive climate change costs of carbon burning, nuclear contamination and storage costs, the costs of naval fleets and operations in the Persian Gulf to protect oil shipping lanes, and….finally, direct subsidies.

          If all the true costs of every energy source — nuclear, coal, oil, wind, solar — were fully included in the final prices consumers pay, then we would all be able to choose more wisely and choose how to conserve, and which source to use.

          True pricing would drastically alter our energy use for the better, and greatly aid the environment, and greatly improve the lives of our children through direct health effects.

          How to do this? End all subsidies of all kinds for all energy sources now, and include in oil taxes the true full costs of defense and climate change, and in coal the true full costs of pollutants and climate change directly as taxes/fees on the users (mostly utilities) in proportion to emissions, all the costs of nuclear that haven’t been included like disposal and health costs (one way to figure health costs for a reactor type is to use a global average of health costs per year to date for that reactor type), and even all the costs of solar panel production pollutants, and for wind energy the electrical transmission build out costs.”

          1. Toby

            I admire and agree with the intent behind your reasoning, but don’t believe The Market can be the intelligent/wise distribution system you appear to believe it can. In the end the market is a zero sum game whose ‘zero sumness’ is masked by perpetual growth appearing to produce growing numbers of winners (ignoring the losers for the moment). At some point systems stop growing though, which is where humanity is now, give or take a decade (some calculate we are already burning through 1.5 planet earths per year). The ‘zero sumness’ of markets will become more and more apparent as growth flatlines. Recognizing this in time to do anything about it will require a cultural about-turn humanity has thus far never managed, so I’m not holding my breath that my preferred direction-change–towards resource-based economics–is possible prior to collapse, and after is a whole other ball game!

            In broad brush strokes I think we, as a species, are transitioning from a scarcity-, fear-, and competition-based paradigm to abundance, cooperation and sharing, a trio fundamentally in opposition to market as we have them today. I know my reading of events is miles off-base for a site like this, but I’ve yet to see an argument that convinces me the current paradigm has anything left to offer humanity other than poison, decadence and decay. If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, so be it. But if I’m right, then old thinking cannot produce answers equal to the challenges we face. The old system is a zombie, and that includes the market in its current form. My two cents. Irony intended. ;-)

  2. roaring mouse

    The measurement method for the methane leakage referenced above warrants a separate discussion. In general, the argument is entirely predictable. We’ll need a TAX to accurately reflect the costs to society from EVIL, DIRTY shale gas. Bwahhahaha!

    1. FatCat


      Fat Cat here, so listen up and listen good!

      I do not pay taxes. Only little mousy people like you pay taxes. So you better apologize immediately for mentioning “TAX” in your post. How dare you!?

      Charles Koch

    2. craazyman

      Taxes? We don’t need no stinkin’ taxes!

      We need to incentivize utilities to earn a reasonable regulated return from investment in energy efficiency. Then we’d blow the doors off the energy problem and mine the real source of new energy — using less power, more efficiently, to do more real work. (as much as I hate the word “efficiency”, sometimes it really means something.).

      And more jobs come from more renewables, and from those jobs come tax revenues. Not more taxes.

      Time is a circle, not an arrow. You reap what you sow, over and over and over.

    3. Resonator

      The measurement method for leakage is a discussion we can’t have by reading conclusory news summaries of a yet to be published scientific article. The NYT says: …methane, the chief component of natural gas, is escaping into the atmosphere in far larger quantities than previously thought, with as much as 7.9 percent of it puffing out from shale gas wells, intentionally vented or flared, or seeping from loose pipe fittings along gas distribution lines.

      7.9 percent of “it” being presumably production over the life of the well, is simply an enormous number. Flared gas becomes primarily water and carbon dioxide, so how much methane escapes through flaring to be included in the 7.9 percent? And loose pipe fittings on distribution lines cannot increase shale-gas wells leakage relative to non shale-gas wells. That leaves us venting and what else to double the leakage compared to non shale-gas wells?

      From NewsWise: “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.” Lends itself?

      More leakage because of more time, more venting, more flowback. More compared to what? Per well? Per total production?

  3. Foppe

    I’m pretty amazed that no one looked into the greenhouse gas impact of fracking until now.
    Well, one person who looked into it was the guy who made Gasland. But I suspect that the reason why nobody has looked into the environmental pressure is, on the one hand, (as Gasland tells us) that because of the “Cheney Loophole” frackers are specifically exempted from legislation like the Clean Water Act and similar, so that state regulators (like the state versions of the EPA) actually do not have the authority to investigate claims. And on the other hand, those same regulators have, over the past few years, been horribly underfunded (mostly by republican state legislatures), so that in a few cases they don’t even have the personnel any more to investigate even if they were allowed to do so.

  4. FatCat

    Fat Cat here, chumps, so listen up and listen good. Let me make this clear. I an elite, societal crème de la crème, a genetically superior being, or, as you sometimes disrespectfully refer to me, an oligarch or a fat cat. So be it, call me a fat cat if you will, but nonetheless I am your master, your owner, and your ruler. You are my subjects, my slaves, my property. I own you, and I can crush all of you like filthy bugs if I choose to.

    Now, when I drill for gas and oil I do it where I want to do it. Got that?! I’ll do it in your back yard, on your kid’s school’s soccer field, or on you mother’s grave if I want to. I’ll do it with fracking if I want to, and that’s the end of discussion. If methane escapes and the stupid ozone layer dissipates, that’s just too bad. I have my million acres in Alaska so I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’ll all burn in global warming. I’ll be staying cool by MY glacier. And if methane gets in the aquifers and your brats drink methane water, what do I care. My kids drink Evion. Can you afford to buy Evion for your brats?

    So let me make this clear. I want my profits, and I’m going to get my profits, OK?! I got MY President, MY Congress, MY Senate, MY Supreme Court to do my bidding and to protect my interests. You’ve got nothing. You are nothing. I’ve got you by the balls. So take it. Take it with dignity, because if I hear any more bitching about me and my brother, David, I am going to turn off your heating gas in January and double the price of gasoline on 4-th of July. I’ll do it just to see you squirm and crawl on your knees begging for forgiveness.

    So take it. I own you. I own this country. I am THE Fat Cat. I call the shots. No more bitching about how I conduct my business, OK!

    Charles Koch

    PS – I have just received my permit to drill for oil on your mother’s grave. What are you going to do about it, morons?!

  5. bob

    Fracking is very inefficiently turning diesel fuel into natural gas.

    The economics are also completely dependent on free or close to free water, and then no or low cost disposal of the polluted water when they are done with it.

    I have been following this for a very long time. The part the government is playing is “partner” to the gas industry.

    Any true study of the long term effects would clearly show that the costs far outweigh the benefits. By the time this becomes obvious, the gas companies have gone BK, the home owners in the area are left with less than worthless homes/land (try to mortgage/sell a house without water), and the majority of the tax payers, who did not get anything out of the gas boom are left with the cost of cleaning up the mess.

    The best treatment of all of the issues involved is at-

    The best series of videos is-

    ‘The Marcellus Gas Shale Play: Information for an Informed Citizenry’ – a talk by Professor Ingraffea

    It’s well worth the time to watch and understand how this is being done. The scale is far beyond most people’s understanding.

  6. Mark P.

    Yves wrote: “Fukushima is going to make it harder if not impossible to get nuclear plants built, and fracking is looking less attractive the more scrutiny it gets. Looks like it’s time to develop Plan B.”

    This is Plan B. What makes you think there’s any other that real-world physics and technology allows us in the next 20-30 years but this, natural gas and nuclear?
    ‘Praying for an Energy Miracle’

    “The problem, however, is that we are probably not just a few breakthroughs away from deploying cheaper, cleaner energy sources on a massive scale. Though few question the value of developing new energy technologies, scaling them up will be so difficult and expensive that many policy experts say such advances … will make little impact on our energy mix …these experts are skeptical that renewables are close to achieving grid parity, or that batteries are close to allowing an electric vehicle to compete with gas-powered cars ….”

    Solar could scale by 2050. The downside of that will be the necessary infrastructure may likely include giant molten salt batteries with the same potential problems as the anti-nuke brigades have been objecting to with molten-salt thorium reactors.

    Wind, based on EROEI, comes out a little ways ahead of prayer wheels.

    We’re looking at trying to power a world of 9 billion people by mid-century, unless the doomsters get their fondest wish and a giant human dieback occurs. For the next few decades, in the U.S. and Europe we’ll be building new power plants that burn natural gas, while in Asia they’ll be building more nuclear plants. There ain’t no other roads.

    1. Toby

      Many studies put wind’s EROIE way above oil. A recent Danish study puts it at around 40, oil is at around 10-15 (and falling) if memory serves.

      Also, the level of energy consumption you seem keen to sustain is unsustainable for many reasons, such as water table levels and soil fertility. All living systems on the planet are in a state of decline. We are at the top of the food chain. Do the math. The perpetual linear-growth system we are striving so desperately to rescue is falling apart because of our very efforts to keep it going. We have to transition to renewable and clean energies whether we want to or not, and the longer we delay transitioning the more damage we do. Then doomsters–as you call them–can enjoy their judgment day, along with non-doomsters too. I think we should be doing everything we can to avoid that eventuality.

      Finally, this isn’t only about energy production, it’s about how we consume and why. Houses, cities and transportation need to be revolutionized to be as energy efficient as possible, from construction through to use. The energy savings we could make in terms of our consumption are enormous. Sadly, this means less profits for large and powerful corporations, perhaps their demise. Nevertheless, this must be part of any plan to get us off burning fuel then burying or breathing in the waste, and over to using energy like the rest of nature does; sustainably.

      We are in nature, not apart from it, an inescapable fact we are having a very hard time accepting. We ignore it at our peril.

      And if your reaction is along the lines of ‘we can’t afford it,’ you are tacitly admitting another truth: the money system has to go too. None of these things can be treated in isolation from the other.

      1. bmeisen

        There is a viable sustainable alternative to nuclear/fossil sources. The German energy producers association has endorsed it, much to the dismay of RWE and E.on, who in response have threatened with other represententives of Big Energy to cut their involvment in sustainables. See:,1518,756251,00.html

        The key features of the sustainable alternative include intensified efforts at improving energy efficiency. To this end the Merkel government has corrected another one of the bad ideas that Big Energy had planted in their heads: the German government just announced that subsidies will in fact be available for the improvemnet of energy efficiency in private homes.

        Passive design works and is a serious threat to the bottem line of energy concerns who have dismissed warnings and pursued strategies that are overly reliant on fossil and nuclear. Passive design should be mandated in all building construction. As the Greens have noted, German municipalities mandate the use of specific colors for roof tiles. Why can’t they also mandate energy efficiency?

        Another key feature is expansion of sustainable sources. The time-lag between now and complete independence from nuclear is about 5 years. Generation capacity is not the problem – contingent capacity already exists. Storage capacity is a problem. There is a need for the construction of resevoirs and a new generation of power lines. IN these 5 years more fossil fuel than expected would be burned to create sufficient capacity. Complete independence from nuclear and fossil would be possible by 2030.

        1. Toby


          We have the tech to do things sustainably, sadly the political will and money-system conspire to prevent nucleation around what is painfully obviously necessary: a sustainable socioeconomics. Until we have that, we have less than diddly. We’re burning resources to ash just to dig our own graves, while paying banks for the privilege. We have to be the most stupid animal on earth.

          (Thanks for the link.)

        2. Toby

          From the article:

          Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen (CDU) and Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle (FDP) have reportedly formulated a plan to “accelerate the energy revolution in Germany.” German news agency DPA reports that the plan calls for investments of €5 billion this spring alone for offshore wind farms. A fund aimed at making buildings more energy efficient is to be more than quadrupled in size to €2 billion. And research into a modern grid infrastructure is to be funded with €500 million. The paper includes several more measures as well.

          The paper neglects to indicate where funding might come from. And with the country’s leading utilities having halted payments into the renewable energies fund, the search promises to become even more challenging.

          Like I say, if money is the problem, that is, if ‘funding’ stands between humanity and doing the right thing, money is the f*cking problem.

          And if the energy giants insist on nuclear energy and enormous profits, then we, as customers, must switch to their competitors. I live in Germany and switched last year to Lichtblick, which produces electricity 100% from renewables. I also happen to work for Vattenfall, but won’t be soon after reading that article.

          1. Obamanaut

            You’re taking that quote out of context. The full quote, I believe is, “Yes, we can, we will, and there’s nothing you can do about it. No you can’t, you won’t, and don’t even think about it.”

      2. Mark P.

        Toby wrote: ‘Many studies put wind’s EROIE way above oil. A recent Danish study puts it at around 40, oil is at around 10-15 (and falling)’

        Faith-based energy policy, huh? Nobody at MIT or even at Berkeley believes those sorts of figures. Though they’re amusing, I’ll give you that.

        Still, to figure out how wind rates as an investment, we don’t need to be from someplace like MIT. Nor do we need to compete in posting links to tables of figures prepared by perhaps-biased sources. Some basic observations of real world evidence will do the job….

        Firstly, we can look at this pro wind power site, which is commercially invested in advancing wind as an energy solution —

        And here are some of their prices for commercial wind —

        “In recent 2007-2008 canvassing, the commercial-scale wind turbine system ranged from $1.2 to $ 2.6 million per MW of installed nameplate capacity. For the 2 MW-in-size commercial-scale turbines installed today, the estimated cost is around $3.5 million. Those small-scale, under 100 KW, wind turbine prices is between $ 3,000 to $ 5,000 per KW capacity. This would mean at least $35,000-$50,000 for a 10 KW machine use to power an average home.

        “No matter what the cost of your wind project is, always think that the benefits of having one always outweighs the price.”

        Right. Given that the current annual electricity bill averages $700 in the U.S. and £669.60 in the U.K., the average homeowner who invests “$35,000-$50,000 for a 10 KW machine” will recoup that investment over 50-70 years. (And this is without bothering to consider intermittency, etc.)

        Secondly, there are other costs to wind and they’re substantial. Do you live anyplace near where there’s a fairly large wind farm installed? I do. In fact, I live quite near one of the oldest and largest, in the Altamont Pass, California.

        The Altamont Valley wind farm was commissioned in 1981. Every time I ride down through there I see perhaps as many as a quarter of the turbines with blades stilled while others are turning. Wind turbines have higher failure rates and need more maintenance than is commonly realized.

        Here’s a good analysis from Sandia, with pages 12 to 16 have the core maintenance costs analysis. —

        Wind turbines are trending quite fast towards lower failure rates, having started with high ones, because they’re a new technology. They’re now better than diesel generators’ failure rates — though they generate nowhere near as much power, of course — but still not within reach of steam turbines.

        Here’s the most relevant results based on 10 years of data from a survey population of up to 4,500 German turbines, and 2,500 Danish turbines, with variations in turbine size w from 100 kW to 2.5 MW and also variations in the drive train mechanical architecture, etcetera ….

        • Planned Maintenance – can be anywhere from 50 to 100
        hours per year per turbines. Includes oil filter changes,
        generator brush replacement, etc.
        • Unplanned Maintenance – Wear out mechanism dominates
        on high cost items => Periodic overhauls (every 5 years) to
        reduce/manage unplanned maintenance costs.
        • System Overhaul – often includes generator bearings,
        gearbox bearings and oil change, bearings in yaw drive and
        pitch drive gear boxes and usually requires a major lift crane that can account for 10 – 15% of the overhaul cost. Complete turbine overhaul can be 20% of a new turbine cost.

        Overall, given the relatively small energy return on energy invested, a large-scale investment in wind power is perhaps the worst investment a society can make.

        1. Toby

          Faith-based energy policy, huh?

          Faith-based is believing burning fuel to useless waste is viable long term. And more faith-based still is believing a system which requires perpetual growth is both sustainable and healthy. Your post suggests your faith in these two delusions is strong.

          I live in Germany (as a subsequent comment in this thread stated), near many wind farms I regularly drive past. I rarely see motionless blades, though that’s just anecdotal evidence you can ignore if you wish. As to reports of EROEI I quoted the highest figure from a Danish study, since the best that wind can offer interests me more than the worst. The report (on many studies from various countries) was linked to at Oil Drum if memory serves, and they averaged out around 18 to 20 EROEI, above oil. And this is still early days in wind tech, as you concede. And oil’s EROEI is falling, as stated. Nuclear energy is an absolute no go for a whole host of reasons.

          As for you using dollars as a measure of viability, that doesn’t interest me. Does that make me fringe? Yes, absolutely. But we are talking about energy returned on energy invested, not money returned, and that’s a very important distinction. Money is nowhere near as important as energy, nor resources, nor the facts of nature. We cannot burn resources, extract their energy, throw ‘away’ the waste, and think it viable. Any monetary system financially rewarding that behaviour above sustainable alternatives is a money system doing humanity and the environment great harm. We have an insane money system. Dollar measurements are therefore not data I can take seriously. I get my electricity from Lichtblick, a company who sells electricity only from renewable sources. I pay more per KWh for that, but that’s ok, since, logically speaking, that’s where our future lies, is the path that makes most sense.

          Can wind do it all? No, of course not, but I have never stated it could. Iceland uses geothermal for example. MIT produced a report in 2005 stating that an investment of $10bn (pocket change nowadays) could turn geothermal into an energy source to produce humanity’s energy needs for the next 2,000 years. Also, a point I made you totally ignored, and for me the more important one, is energy efficiency in house design, city design and construction, transportation and elsewhere. Then there’s the money system. The question of energy viability cannot be treated in isolation, just on the supply side, while holding other variables constant. Such an approach can only yield stupid answers.

          As I expected, you imply we can’t ‘afford’ to do things sustainably. Put the other way around, you imply our money system is incapable of enabling humanity to do the sensible thing. Therefore, by simple logic a child can understand (indoctrinated adults have a hard time with this) our money system is in the way. Let’s get rid of it and replace it with something more sensible, so that we can live more sensibly.

    2. skippy

      “There ain’t no other roads.” —Mark P.—

      Try less consumption, less industry, less of a_world is my apple_and I’ll eat till I find the core.

      Skippy…Growth is a sure fire ELE … keep banging heads on energy’s edifice…the universe always wins…sigh.

    3. Hal H

      The Oil Drum had a nice post on the EROEI, and you should read at least the conclusion (if not more). Here’s part of the conclusion:
      “…In the United States existing wind power seems to have a rather good EROI (18:1) although that is likely to be decreased substantially if issues related to storage are factored in. Present generation photovoltaics have a moderate EROI (around 8:1 but with great variability and uncertainty). Both wind and photovoltaic systems appear to have a large potential for improving their EROI. ”

      Note that there are a *lot* of possible ways to store energy, some of them not glamorous (or profitable) at all, such as pumping water back up behind a dam overnight. It is not a safe assumption that economic storage (of wind energy) can’t be done. I would not take that bet against wind energy. It may end up more a matter of what makes money for who.

  7. RebelEconomist

    When we look into them more deeply, there seems to be problems with all sources of energy. Perhaps the best that can be done is to encourage diversified supply that spreads environmental impact as well as risk and keeps us looking for technical improvements on many fronts, and to shift the burden of taxation onto energy consumption instead of employment so that, to the extent that taxation distorts the economy, it does so in a beneficial way.

  8. Dan Duncan

    The Ipse-Dixitism of Climate Change.

    By focusing on methane, the Climate Alarmists are simply continuing the dogmatic assault that “Carbon (and man) cause global warming!” The Cornell study and Yves’ post simply insert their belief in Anthropogenic Global Warming as The Axiom for further discussion of this issue.

    Hell, in this post, there are 10 references to carbon. Every thought, every sentence is essentially tagged to the assumptions of AGW.

    There’s a certain creeping normalcy to this “study”. A homeopathic approach of constant Carbon-AGW exposure in a diluted form.

    The dangers of fracking need to be studied and understood. It’s a serious issue, no doubt. But the treatment of the issue by Cornell and Yves is imbued with a hearty dose of “Dr. Leftist’s Anti-Man-Made-Global-Warming-Pills” which contain no-so-trace-amounts of Bullshit.

  9. Hal H

    Glad to see this getting more attention. So much information disappears like trees in the forest. If the attention can increase, then the likely result would be pressure and then an effort to reduce the leakages, which would in time work to some extent no doubt. It’s all a matter of effort. That’s the best outcome that could happen in the real world, since we’re not going to stop unless there’s a major incident with an aquifer. btw, in the popular media it seems like 60 minutes really brought this out into wider attention:

  10. Unsympathetic

    “What makes you think there’s any other”

    There is another. Thorium reactors. The technology was developed over 20 years ago and has orders of magnitude lower risk than uranium/plutonium reactors, commonly referred to as “nuclear.”

    As an added bonus, the US is one of the top 2 sources of thorium in the world.. we have enough for US energy for over 100 years.

    1. Mark P.

      [1] Yes. But thorium reactors are still “nuclear,” the great Satan. In the U.S. and most of Europe the human reality is that thanks to, firstly, anti-nuke/”sustainability” religion and, secondly, the fact that thorium reactors are unprofitable for the nuclear industry as currently constituted, any “nuclear renaissance” including thorium reactors was a dead issue long before the Fukushima catastrophe.

      The new nuclear plants will be built in Asia. They have little choice, and they have neither our anti-nuke religionists nor our insistence on “free market” solutions — i.e. China and India don’t allow private majority ownership of their nuclear plants, because they see nuclear as a long-term investment in energy security.

      [2] Also, despite the fact that “everybody knows” about the supposed inherent proliferation resistance of the LFTR and other molten-salt thorium reactors, the nasty little secret is that there’s one way around that proliferation resistance that effectively makes the LFTR into a civilian reactor technology that converts, with minor reconfigurations in the plant layout, to a breeder for feeding out high grade fissile U-233.

      1. alex

        “Asia … they have neither our anti-nuke religionists”

        You might want to ask those Asians in Fukushima about their enthusiasm for nuclear power.

        The government-industrial nuclear complex has screwed itself by paying insufficient attention to safety while loudly claiming otherwise. Ain’t nobody in their right mind gonna believe claims of “it’s safe now” after the Fukushima disaster. Chernobyl could be dismissed because it was a terrible Soviet design with (in practice) horrible operating protocol, but Japanese nukes are a lot more like American nukes.

        It’s unfortunate, because I remain mildly optimistic that reasonably safe nukes are technically feasible. By “technically” I mean it’s possible to design, build and operate them (and yes, I’m including the inevitable operator errors). But politically? Forget it. Not only will no one trust them, they have good reason not to.

        1. Mark P.

          Oh, I agree with all that. I’d decommission the majority of existing nuclear plants in the U.S. as rapidly as possible, nationalize the operators — or at least do things along French lines — and build those perfectly feasible, relatively safe Gen-III+ and Gen IV designs.

          It won’t happen, of course.

          I’m still telling you that Asia as a whole — particularly China, India and S. Korea — will go ahead with nuclear, including those Gen-III+ and Gen IV designs. They’ll also burn coal and natural gas. They have little choice.

          As for our government-industrial nuclear complex and all the spent nuclear fuel that’s today stacked up at Fukushima and all around the world, we should expect some Japanese critics to recall some real-world history from just three decades ago and turn on us in the Fukushima catastrophe’s wake.

          Very simply, under the Carter administration — starting in 1977 — the U.S. stopped nuclear fuel reprocessing at home and exerted enormous pressure to obstruct it everywhere else in the world. This Carter-era initiative was driven by valid U.S. fears about the vast potentials that reprocessing afforded then — and affords today — for nuclear weapons proliferation. That initiative and the fact that the “once-through fuel cycle” was cheaper for plant operators are the reasons that nuclear fuel isn’t today being disposed via advanced reprocessing as was originally planned during the 1950s and ’60s.

          Let me repeat that: the fact that the world has these stacked mountains of spent nuclear fuel is almost entirely due to the unstinting efforts of the U.S. over the last three decades. Expect some of the Japanese to remember that and turn on us eventually.

  11. Tenney Naumer

    It is very good to see so many rational voices here — the best thing you can do now is to make your voices heard by your elected representatives.

    Do more.

    Send e-mail to your senators and congressmen — make sure they know that there are people out there who think the big giveaways to fossil-fuel companies are absurd.

    If they don’t hear from you, they don’t know.

    1. Obamanaut

      They do know and they don’t care. Why don’t you tune them out the way they tune you out?

  12. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    Just last night I had a conversation with a guy, Jim, who owns land – 50 acres or so – in Southeast Ohio where the Marcellus Shale Formation is quickly becoming ground zero for gas exploration. “Depressed” economically, with counties and municipalities always looking for ways to augment revenue, the latter appears to be a godsend. Unemployment in this region of the state is chronically above the average overall. It’s not surprising that state officials and elected representatives have teamed with the gas industry to encourage exploration and exploitation of this natural resource.

    But this isn’t something new to Ohio. In the past it was COAL. When I was a teenager back in the 60s, “LITTLE EGYPT” and “BIG MUSKIE”, two monstrous drag line shovels, were used to remove the overburden to expose the coal seams before it was removed. LITTLE EGYPT mined coal in the hills south of Piedmont Reservoir where I remember seeing the browned hills in the distance etched with the gullies from the acid runoff. My grandfather swore, literally and figuratively, at how this runoff leeched its way into the reservoir and adversely affected fishing/wildlife for years afterwards. Today this area south of the reservoir is called the “Little Egypt Valley” after its creator with thousands of acres available to hunters. Elsewhere in Ohio, there are other “reclamation” efforts – Ohio Power – that have become quite popular for recreation. But initially, the land was denuded of vegetation and useless – moonscape. It took decades for the scars to become less obvious. But as if this environmental degradation wasn’t enough, it wasn’t confined to Ohio.

    The coal burned to generate electricity in Ohio went up the smokestacks and wafted its way to the western Adirondacks of upper New York State where it fell as acid rain, destroying forests and ruining many a lake with acidity. Camped and fished there in the mid 90s and wondered why we got some looks from the locals when they saw Ohio license plates. Finally, at Tupper Lake, I asked an older gentleman about acid rain. He pointed to a white jug floating in the lake not far from shore and said that less than ten years earlier he could easily catch 10 walleye or more at that spot. Now the walleye were few and far between and the lake had become much more acidic. He looked plaintively toward the sky as he told me that the walleye no longer spawned naturally. When we only caught one hammer-handle pike and no walleyes in the crystal clear water of Tupper Lake I understood what he meant.

    Now there is evidence from other states – TEXAS – available on the net, where hydrofracturing has been “perfected” that suggests that the chemical brew used in fracking sometimes can and does migrate into aquifers. We are assured that this cannot happen by the “experts” but then, lo and behold, it does. But by then the profits from the gas well have been extracted and its real costs are now borne by the individuals and their communities, many of whom may have profited from the initial bonanza but now have to deal with the externalities of their decision – the longterm consequences. Coal and oil extraction tell a similar tale. And let’s not forget about nuclear… Now it’s the methane, stupid!

    The real irony here is that those most likely to be adversely affected by the gas drilling are those who can desperately use the influx of investment into the local communities, gainful employment, and additional revenue for leases and royalties, etc. generated by the exploration for gas. Outside environmentalists have, far too often, dismissed the needs of working people for gainful employment and economic opportunity in their pursuit of clean air and water, making it seem as if the latter has to come at their expense. And even where there is a genuine appreciation for the land and an understanding of what is at stake, it butts up against economic reality, often pitting members of the same community against each other.

    Cracking this nut would appear to be essential if we ever hope to ween ourselves off of our insatiable thirst for energy “voluntarily.”.

    1. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

      Little Egypt was actually named the Gem of Egypt which strip mined much of the Little Egypt Valley in SE Ohio.

      My mistake…but the results were much the same.

    2. Joe Rebholz

      “economic reality” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. Your post adds to the arguments made by previous posters that the system needs to be changed drastically. We need a serious economic revolution. The economic theories are garbage. We need unfree carefully controlled markets. We need collective action toward goals that benefit all of humanity and our biosphere to replace the old simple minded idea that every individual should try to get the most for him or herself. We have to change the ways most everybody thinks starting with the rich and powerful who now run the world (or think they do). This is drastic change. That’s why one of the first things we have to do is realize, admit, that we need a big revolution. But everything is so interconnected (worldwide banking crisis, nuclear reactor accidents causing cancer in people hundreds of miles away), that we can’t just smash things. Somehow we have to go from where we are now to where we want to get without causing serious harm. We need to identify those parts of the system that cause real harm, prevent progress toward our goals, are corrupt, are parasitic — such as the present banking/money system, present so called economic theories — and figure out how to eliminate or modify or replace them. In time it will amount to the revolution we must have but it has to proceed step by careful step.

      Reading Naked Capitalism over the last six months has given me hope. I see now, especially among commenters, but also in some of the economists referenced here, that there are people who also realize we need a revolution though not all will use that word.

  13. Justicia

    Beware single pollutant analyses — that’s how we got sold the bio-fuels hogwash. CO2 isn’t everything.

    From the National Research Council report The Hidden Costs of Energy (pp. 243-244):

    Electricity from Coal
    For electricity generation from coal, we monetized effects on human health, visibility of outdoor vistas, agriculture, forestry, and damages to building materials associated with emissions of airborne particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) from 406 coal-fired power plants in the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. More than 90% of monetized damages are associated with premature human mortality and approximately 85% of damages come from SO2 emissions, which are transformed into airborne PM. Aggregate damages (unrelated to climate change) in 2005 were approximately $62 billion (2007 USD), or 3.2 cents per kWh (weighting each plant by the electricity it produces)

    Electricity from Gas
    The aggregate damages associated with emissions of the SO2, NOx, and PM from these facilities, which generated 71% of electricity from natural gas, were approximately $0.74 billion (2007 USD), or 0.16 cents per kWh. Thus, on average, non-climate change damages associated with electricity generation from natural gas are an order of magnitude lower than damages from coal-fired electricity generation.

    Until we get credible life cycle analyses for coal, gas, and renewables we have nothing but industry hype (and campaign cash) to base our energy policy on.

    1. alex

      “Beware single pollutant analyses”

      Which is exactly what the paper is trying to do. It’s long been known that while NG’s CO2 output is 56% of coal’s, the methane has enormous GHG potential. So the question is how much leaks? It’s a tough one.

      Even the (yet to be published) paper doesn’t claim to be the final answer, but it is an important question.

      As for coal in the NRC report, were they citing the situation as it currently exists, and do they comment on the potential for improved (cleaner) coal power that’s possible with existing tech?

      1. Justicia

        “Cleaner coal” is a myth. Coal mining is destructive of the environment (look at what mountaintop removal has done to Appalachia and what strip mining is doing to the Powder River Basin).

        Even the latest “super critical” coal plants pollute far more than nat gas generators (and they’re cheaper to build than coal plants. Duke’s Edwardsport, IN, plant is already 30% over budget.

        The National Research Council didn’t consider carbon capture and storage (CCS):
        Not evaluated were: […] fossil fuel power plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) which seem technically feasible but still are far from large-scale implementation and will require new infrastructure for carbon dioxide transportation to sequestration sites of proven integrity.
        — The Hidden Costs of Energy, p.31

        CCS is years away from commercial deployment and it will be too expensive w/out a hefty price on carbon. U.S. GAO found that CCS is 10-15 years away will increase electricity costs by 30-80%. Moreover, unless we build a pipeline infrastructure to rival the oil & gas pipeline network (costing billions and billions of dollars) only plants that are already near sequestration sites or that are built over them will be able to deploy CCS.

        1. alex

          Justicia says: “Cleaner coal” is a myth.

          No, _clean_ coal is a myth, but some coal use is (dramatically) _cleaner_ than others. I agree that CCS seems like a pipe-dream, but I was addressing the other pollutants you mentioned (PM, SO2, NOx, etc.) where many coal plants have already been cleaned up.

          Meanwhile, there is still the question of CH4 leakage w/ NG, and the destruction often seen with fracking. Ain’t nothing perfect.

  14. Chemical Ali

    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,

    Additionally, methane is barely soluble in rain-droplets whereas H2O + CO2 forms carbonic acid which falls out with the rain. CO2 is heavier than N2, heavier than CH4. Another reason for atmospheric clearance to be quicker for CO2 than for CH4.

    Gas wells contain, amoung other things, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide and other toxic compounds.

    How do the Swiss run their rails? Hydro-electric power.

    Think about it

    1. alex

      No, CO2 stays in the atmosphere much longer than CH4, as CH4 is volatile and eventually oxidizes. The CO2 + H2O => H2CO3 you mention is a factor, but there’s a limit to the ocean’s capacity for it and it leads to ocean acidification (possibly almost as big a problem as warming, though much less widely appreciated).

      When you say CH4 is X times more potent a GHG than CO2 you have to specify the time frame. Nevertheless over 20-100 years CH4 is much more potent.

      1. moo baracknaut

        CH4, as CH4 is volatile and eventually oxidizes.

        Would you guess that it reacts with O3, ozone? CH4 takes out ozone, as O3 takes out CH4? Enlarges the ozone hole? Holey Ozone, Batman!

        CO2 dissolves into ocean, acidifies ocean, feeds ocean plankton which feeds whales which feed Japanese who feed isotopes into the ocean. It is called the food chain.

        Then plankton deposit CO2 into their CaCO3 skeletons which sink to ocean floor to help support transoceanic internet cables. It is called the World Wide Web which is worthless unless you know your DNS server IP4 address. Your browser just shuts down until you get those 4 little magic numbers from a sniffer.

  15. jim weaver

    there is an alternative to hydrofracking – gelled LNG fracking – better for the formation, better yield, minimal chemical additives and NO WASTEWATER. Has been tested and used in Canada for the past 5 years and is the only fracking technology permitted in New York State. Now being used in a small part of the Haynesville Shale and has also been tested in the Marcellus. Chevron developed the gelling process and GasFrac (Canadian Company) developed the fracking process and equipment to implement.

  16. Earl Killian

    See also More Reasons to Question Whether Gas is Cleaner than Coal.

    I am curious what you think of Unraveling the Spin on the Fight Over Hidden Debit Card Fees?

    On nuclear, consider the data in Aldo v. da Rosa’s energy textbook for reserves of various fossil supernova remnant fuels, expressed in exajoules of energy (exa being the scientific prefix for 10^18, joules being a watt-second of energy):
    Coal 39,000 EJ
    Oil 18,900 EJ
    Gas 15,700 EJ
    Liquified gas 2,300 EJ
    Shale 16,000 EJ
    U235 2,600 EJ
    U238 320,000 EJ
    Th232 11,000 EJ
    Once you use these up, they’re gone. For example, take the U235 number, and divide by 900 EJ/yr required for the world in 2050, and you get just 3 years. 15 years if you add in Th232. Perhaps 4th generation nuclear (not gen 1-3) with passive cooling has a place, but it will necessarily be a tiny fraction of the world’s energy supply. If you turn U238 into plutonium, then you have more energy, but you might want to wait for a world at peace before trying that (now when do you think that will be?). Now compare to sunshine, which delivers to the surface of the earth, every year, for millions of years to come, 3,850,000 EJ. That comes out to 174 PW (PW = petawatts, peta = 10^15). The conclusion seems obvious.

    Oh by the way, nuclear does cause global warming too, albeit via a different mechanism than greenhouse pollution. Here is an excerpt from the journal EOS: “More realistically, if world population plateaus at 9 billion inhabitants by 2100, developed (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD) countries increase nonrenewable energy use at 1% annually, and developing (non-OECD) countries do so at roughly 5% annually until east-west energy equity is achieved in the mid-22nd century, after which they too will continue generating more energy at 1% annually, then a 3ºC rise will occur in about 320 years (or 10ºC in ~450 years), even if carbon dioxide emissions end.”

    When will people wake up and realize that the sun must be the primary answer to the energy question?

    1. Toby

      Great post Earl Killian!

      To answer your concluding question, albeit vaguely, right about after it’s too late to matter. Even being hit over the head by the reality of our situation, witnessing live an unfolding catastrophe, even the simple logic that burning stuff to ash is unsustainable, none of it seems to make a dent.

      I fear for us, I really do. We want our MTV with bling and baubles on, no matter what the final bill. What an amazing animal we are.

  17. ThatJoeGuy

    Each major volcanic eruption (and we’ve had a few over the years) dumps more ozone destroying gases into the atmosphere then all of man’s emissions since the dawn of time. Not only do they pump more into the atmosphere then man ever will but they do it at the altitudes most ‘damaging’ to the earth.

    There is no DELICATE BALANCE it’s all a sham, just follow the money.

  18. Jack

    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.

    Maybe the coal industry has friends at Cornell?

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