Jon Rynn: A Fracking Mess – Natural Gas is Not the Fuel of the Future

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By Jon Rynn, author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems. Cross posted from New Deal 2.0.

Between questionable science, health hazards, and exorbitant costs, there’s no fracking way that drilling for natural gas will solve our long-term energy issues.

Natural gas is being touted as a fuel of the future, a way to bridge the gap between a dirty energy and clean energy economy. But according to numerous articles and a report from David Hughes at the Post-Carbon Institute, what we may have is another bridge to nowhere (page numbers in this post refer to Hughes’ study). Fracking, the rapidly expanding technique for pulling natural gas out of the ground, may be worse for global warming than coal, ultimately very expensive, and not productive enough to make much of a difference in natural gas supply anyway.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a 60-year old technique that has recently been applied to the huge deposits of what is called shale, a form of rock that can contain large amounts of natural gas or oil. Now natural gas companies are drilling thousands of these wells, fracturing the shale, and pumping millions of gallons of water laced with hundreds of chemicals to release the natural gas (pages 22-24).

While burning natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal, transporting, processing, and delivering that gas significantly reduces its advantages. And methane — natural gas — is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide for about 20 years. According to a recent study and other research, shale gas actually leads to more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional drilling.

The main problem seems to be that the drilling companies and trucking companies do a sloppy job and let gas escape into the atmosphere – and into drinking water. This was best exemplified in the movie GasLand, which showed that people near drilling sites could light their tap water on fire.

An enormous controversy has erupted around this technique, with some making accusations of potentially catastrophic environmental impacts, while others call fracking a ”game changer.” A new study shows that drinking water near fracking sites contains large amounts of natural gas, while proponents claim that none of the toxic chemicals that make up the fracking mixture have contaminated water supplies. New York State has temporarily banned the procedure, although Governor Cuomo has indicated he will lift the ban for most of the state. New Jersey (and France) will probably ban it. The EPA is still studying the issue, but Dick Cheney and company made sure that fracking is not covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and states have less expertise, money and motivation to monitor the situation.

The Federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) gets more and more bullish about the prospects for shale gas, recently claiming that 45% of natural gas in this country will come from shale gas by 2034. Currently, the number is only 25% (pages 28-30). But according to the New York Times, this opinion is contested from within the agency itself. There are signs that the EIA is following the lead of the natural gas industry, not doing independent research. Meanwhile, the current price for natural gas, about 4 dollars per thousand cubic feet (mcf), is below the level needed to make shale gas profitable for most drilling – costs estimates range from a bit over 4 dollars to an average of 7 dollars and even 11 dollars per mcf (page 31). And many fracking firms are now moving to drill for oil, not gas, because the price for gas is too low to justify the added expense.

Some fracking advocates claim that we could switch our transportation system to be natural gas based. But to do that would require a doubling of our natural gas production (pages 52-54). Despite all the hype, even the EIA seems to think that natural gas production in this country will only increase from about 24 trillion cubic feet to about 26 trillion by 2034 (page 29). That isn’t enough to even keep up with the anticipated demand, and basically shale gas production will make up for declining conventional gas production, assuming there is as much shale gas as advertised. As David Hughes explains, the EIA is grossly underestimating the amount of wells that would have to be drilled. Recently that number has climbed as high as 30,000 per year(page 19). If half of those use fracking techniques, and a good percentage of those use millions of gallons of water that become toxic – well, it certainly doesn’t sound like a very sustainable solution.

Even if we wanted to make the switch, getting gas from there to here poses its own challenges. The only way to do it is with liquified natural gas (LNG); that is, cooling it way down to liquid form, putting it on a big ship that keeps it cool, and warming it back up when it gets here. It has been estimated that LNG adds enough greenhouse gas emissions that the natural gas has about the same emissions as coal. It is also more expensive than domestic gas, and it also means the US would become dependent on nations like Qatar, Russia, and — hmmm, Iran — than we might want to be.

Another strike against natural gas: wind is getting very cost competitive. Wind could form the backbone of a national electrical system, with gas used for those times when there isn’t enough wind blowing – although the more wind built in the more places, the less gas would be needed for this purpose. A new report suggests that solar panels on buildings could be used to substitute for gas used at peak usage times, say when air conditioners are going full blast, at pretty close to the same price.

There is one interesting technology that could make natural gas more sustainable: microturbines. These are systems that are installed in a large building — say, an apartment building that has 60 or more apartments, according to the New York Times. These can use any source of natural gas, such as natural gas generated from a building’s own waste, or from landfills. And because the turbine is in the building, the heat from the turbine can be used to heat air and water, in a process called co-generation. Up to about 80% of the energy from natural gas can be captured by these units, as opposed to the miserable 32% or so when centralized gas or coal plants generate electricity. Many European countries, such as Denmark, use district heating, a method of using the heat from energy production to warm neighborhoods. This is a reason that density in cities and towns can be more efficient than sprawl.

Even if natural gas emitted “only” half the greenhouse gases of coal, or if fracking turns out to be not as toxic as feared, and relatively profitable, natural gas would still not be a “game changer”: we need to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, not put any more in; we shouldn’t be endangering our water supplies. and we can find renewable sources of energy that, in the long run, make much more economic sense. Not only will natural gas not be the fuel of the future, we won’t be using much fuel. Instead we will use renewable sources of energy from the sun, wind, and the earth.

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  1. sleeper

    The energy arena is full of competing interests –

    Not only the competition between fuels – coal, nuclear,oil, natural gas, wind, and so on but also the heavy equipment industry, the quarry / aggregate folks, the auto industry.

    Each of these interests a well established and quite capable of spreading misinformation.

    So be careful and read with care.

    And although the promise of using waste heat from microturbines is great the 80% efficiency number is skewed it should be around 60 %.

    1. Sock Puppet

      Indeed. Most of the LNG lifecycle author’s other papers are on coal. Just sayin’.
      Nat gas fracking is a bubble. It just sounds too good on paper for wall street and politicians to resist.

    2. Cedric Regula

      I’ve also seen this factoid tossed around by greenies…

      “…as opposed to the miserable 32% or so when centralized gas or coal plants generate electricity.

      I’ve always read that modern coal plants are close to 50% and NG as high as 60%.

      It is hard getting good info. Especially from the renewables industry. I use the EIA a lot, but I know they are cheerleaders at times for anything new that comes along. They were bubbling with excitement over the Hydrogen Economy, until the practical problems with that became known.

      Then when shale gas first hit the news, I did hear cost could be in the high single digits. But we have had sub $4 market prices for years now, and these wells are supposed to be short lived – mostly gone after 2 years – and it seems strange that the industry and Wall Street would be wildly excited over losing so much money for 5 years in a row.

      It’s to tell what to believe.

      1. Cameron Hoppe

        When you look at the math large scale fracking makes little to no sense as a financial investment–unless you focus on the most productive fields and assume the high-end production timeline. The way it works, though, is that drillers lease the land, drill, and sell the wells to long term investors. The drillers and front-end finance guys are pumping up the perceived value of the wells so they can get them on to someone else’s books.

      2. citizendave

        I’ve always heard that utility-scale power plant efficiency is in the 32% range for coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Some months ago I found a DoE page that confirms those numbers, but I can’t find it today. The best I could find is a DoE page on electric power that says “…Research is also underway to increase the fuel efficiency of coal-fueled power plants. Today’s plants convert only a third of coal’s energy potential to electricity…” (third paragraph). In most instances, the two-thirds of the heat that is wasted is dissipated into a body of water or the atmosphere via cooling towers.

        My view is that we don’t harness that heat because coal and natural gas are so cheap, and the cost of adding equipment to employ the “waste” heat is seen as unwarranted. But if we begin to incorporate morals/ethics and the externalities into the equation, we will begin to try to harness waste heat before we risk further damage to the natural environment by hydraulic fracturing.

        1. Cedric Regula

          That’s true of old designs. Anything built 90s or later I think uses a waste heat recovery turbine. Of course there have been few coal plants built since then, and most newer power plants have been NG. Anything new would be built this way because it’s cost effective. The downside for carbon sequestering is there would be more in plant load, however, so effy takes a sizable hit again.

          Gen II nukes are down in the 30% range. Gen III has been improved, but I haven’t seen any figure quoted.

          I just finished listening to the Aspen Institute presentation that Paul T. posted down below. The speaker made an interesting point that I just discovered myself when I found a study of new construction cost estimates commissioned by EIA. Going forward, nearly everything costs about the same (some outliers, like a cheap NG plant – but higher fuel cost would even it out. Or if you happen to be in a good wind area and don’t need an expensive long haul xmission line) from a supply standpoint. It looks like the price of electric power may double or more. But the decision comes down to risk factors. And that also makes efficient use much more important.

  2. wellclosed

    This is a link to a study by Cornell researchers about the impact of “fracking”. The university is situated literally and figuratively on the front lines of this issue.
    Once the Ashokan reservoir is contaminated, will there be a small industry “oops” moment similar to BP in the Gulf? How quickly will they simply move on to the next ignorant county (state, country, planet)–promising jobs, early retirement for local officials, and streets paved with… ??
    Remember the ’60s redneck canard about how commie bastards were going to contaminate our precious bodily fluids with fluoride, LSD, and more recently muslim devil juice?
    How’s that representational entity working for ya?

  3. Cedric Regula

    Everyone needs a wind map, so here’s a wind map.

    Everyone needs a wind plan, so here’s a wind plan.

    Bottom line, only 7% of the US population lives in a good wind area. It will take long new transmissions to get the power to market. The Wind Assc. is doubtful that the private sector can do this on it’s own, and there needs to be a Federal Program, like a TVA or something, for New Deal 2.0 fans.

    We could go back to clean coal. Sequestering CO2 would about double costs. But then we have to really do sequestering. But if we did, we could also use CTL (coal to liquid) technology to make transportation fuels too.

      1. Moopheus

        Personally, I live in one of the windiest areas of the country, so I wouldn’t object to more wind power here–it’s something we have plenty of. I realize that wind isn’t a perfect solution, but no solution ever is. Also, it seems pretty clear that no single solution is going to work for everyone everywhere. Because fossil fuels are so prevalent, people want to see a magic bullet that will be a complete replacement. That’s not going to happen. The energy world of the future will be a complicated patchwork. Some places we live in now and systems we use are just going to be unsustainable.

        1. Cedric Regula

          Most credible science and engineering people involved in the energy dilemma agree there is no silver bullet, and we have to take a shotgun approach with multiple sources.

          If you are in a good wind area, wind is competitive with current power cost (11 cents/kw-hr retail price). But it is still intermittent, so you need conventional sources too to make reliable power like we’ve become accustomed to. The good part about a NG power plant is that it complements wind power so well because these plants are cheap to build and can be cycled up and down easily. They are actually competitive with a non-CO2-sequestering coal plant at around $5 or below NG price.

          1. bmeisen

            The solution for intermittant wind is not burning natural gas. The solution is a system that stores surpluses and makes them available during low-wind periods, for example a system of resevoirs that would be filled with water during high-wind and drained at low-wind.

        2. Cedric Regula

          Storing electric power doesn’t really look possible, unless we use the batteries we buy already for our plug-in hybrid or all electric cars. Batteries are expensive and suffer from low energy density (couple orders of magnitude less than gasoline – which we are trying to replace) so we only want to buy them once.

          Pumped storage will lose at best 20% of the power. And you can’t just build a elevated reservoir any where you want. Plus those cost money.

    1. bmeisen

      What percent of the country lives in a good coal-burning area, or in a good hydroelectric area, or in a place dotted with oil wells? I don’t hear much more than a defense of fossil fuel/non-renewables in your comments. At their core lies a dismissal of global warming and an assumption that minor adjustments, for example adding scrubbers to smoke stacks, would be nice but are not necessary.

      1. Cedric Regula

        ???? I guess you won’t mind moving to a good wind area. See map I provided.

        Personally, I’d pick the NW because it’s already developed as a good hydro area. But it’s also a good wind area, in case anything goes wrong with hydro.

  4. trondhelm

    Fracking releases benzene into groundwater and the environment. Benzene is a very potent carcinogen.

    Fracking will kill large masses of people. And, it’s not even that profitable if it’s profitable at all…but some people in the energy industry don’t have a problem either with the killing or with the lack of profitability.

  5. Chris Rogers

    Forget standing up for ‘tracking’, to put it bluntly its ghastly and I thank Gasland for bringing this obscene extraction technique to my attention.

    I’m no Green, am a realist and am pro-nuclear – one has nothing against alternative sources of energy – hopefully ones that don’t wreck environmental carnage.

    Its bad enough drilling for oil or extracting oil from oil sands, quite another to have a monstrous tracking facility next to your home and family.

    For all those who’s accuse me of being somewhat biased, you are correct. Thanks to Gasland I began looking for other sources of info on tracking and found lots in Australia – thank God the UK is not going nuts about this technique – otherwise I’d have tracking facilities all around where I live.

    Given I live close to a nuclear poet station, the chemicals used in tracking, many being highly carcinogenic, put the fear of God in me.

    No way do I wish my daughter to grow up with this nonsense.

    As with finance, its time to curtail the power of the energy producers – of course we require energy to heat, cool and light our homes – is it worth sacrificing the planet for though?

    1. Rex

      Chris said, “I’m … a realist and am pro-nuclear”

      To my thinking, that’s an oxymoron.

  6. Cedric Regula

    The thing I’ve been wondering about is what is the reason that the fracking industry needs to cook up this diabolical fracking fluid that presumably is made from all these toxic and carcinogenic monads?

    Chemistry is one of those subjects I didn’t like in college, but it seems like there should be a simpler way.

    1. Cedric Regula

      I know ago large transformer design engineers decided to use PCBs as a coolant in large transformers. It wasn’t because they were explicitly evil and plotting to destroy mankind, it just happened that PCBs had good thermal properties and was a cheap industrial chemical that came as a byproduct of some other process. That was before it became known they were carcinogens.

    2. bob

      The petrochemical business has been for YEARS finding “uses” for all of the leftovers from the processing of oil.

      Got a ton of hazardous waste that you don’t have any use for and is taking up space?

      Invent a problem and sell it to someone.

      Asphalt is a good example, sell it to the state as a road surface.

      The “pro-fracking” movement cites “years of fracking” as evidence of how safe it is.

      Wells have been fracked for years. Water wells. They don’t use hazardous chemicals in water wells.

      “slick water hydrofracking” is the industry jargon, and it is new. There is NO long term data on how this ends up.

      Causation is also IMPOSSIBLE to prove when talking about environmental contamination underground. Even the Erin Brockovich case was settled out of court. In that case you had only one company using the chemicals anywhere near the site.

      Now, fast forward to NE Pennsylvania. You have a rural house and no less than 10 different companies drilling near that house. The well water gets contaminated. Who do you sue? The first one who gets sued is going to point at the other nine.

      Even if after YEARS of litigation, you might get a judegment or settlement, but then who do you collect from? Most of the money comes out of the well within the first five years. There is nothing left to “collect”, all parties have sucked dry any capital and moved on.

      Fracking is litigation/ judgement proof environmental contamination on an ENORMOUS scale.

      1. Cedric Regula

        I did have a suspicion that it’s a clever way to turn toxic waste disposal from an oil refinery or petrochem plant into a product line, but that’s still just guesswork on my part.

  7. eric anderson

    If we have the power [pun not intended] to make the world warmer, I vote for a warmer world. I’m not certain we have the power to warm or cool the planet. The author’s stated bias — we must stop putting GHGs into the atmosphere, must pull them out — does not speak to a fair evaluation of fracking and natural gas in general.

    Latest PNAS peer-reviewed science states: “Given the widely noted increase in the warming effects of rising greenhouse gas concentrations, it has been unclear why global surface temperatures did not rise between 1998 and 2008.” Unclear. We don’t know. The authors suggest increased *coal burning* in China has had a cooling effect, counteracting the increased GHGs. Bottom line. They do not know. But human-created aerosols are thought to be cooling.

    So the answer is… more coal?

    1. no sequiturs please

      Stop the presses! Everyone look. eric anderson votes for a warmer world. eric anderson is the new celebrity blogger. People hang on his every word, wondering what he will vote for next. Everyone cares what eric anderson votes for. So should you!

      Look! eric anderson is making an argument. He says that because in a certain ten year period, and with respect to a certain type of temperature, a few scientists don’t know what those temperatures didn’t increase, that global warming is uncertain! Man is cooling the planet with coal burning! Did you hear that people? Burn more coal! It’s good for the planet.

      Wait. What’s that you say? eric anderson voted for warming? Scratch that. Burn less coal. Coal is cooling. Coal is bad. eric anderson wants warming, and warming he shall have!

      1. eric anderson

        Is that the best ya got? That doesn’t really seem like an argument.

        If you actually took the time to look at the report the IPCC put out in 2007, you would know that there are enormous error bars on most of their guesstimates for anthropogenic forcings. The admission of uncertainty is there, if viewed with open eyes.

        Trenberth in the climategate emails said that science’s inability to account for the lack of warming was a “travesty.” You want to trivialize this fact, but one of the top global warming scientists calls it a travesty. I take it he thinks it is a pretty serious indictment of the state of the so-called science.

        Your sarcasm is amusing, but it doesn’t point us to a formula that has accurately predicted global temperatures, indicating that we potentially do correctly understand the factors regulating planetary temperature.

        Here’s another article backing up my point about uncertainty, from the Nature publications in UK.

        Knowledge of the cooling effect of aerosols is, at best, incomplete. Knowledge of the effects of cloud cover, and how to predict it, is incomplete. Knowledge of the amplifying effect (on GHG warming) of water vapor is incomplete. We’re working in the dark. But my suggestion that coal (which releases aerosols as well as GHG’s) might retard warming is not crazy. In fact it is what the authors of the just-released PNAS paper suggest.

  8. Brian Donnelly

    I am appalled at Gov. Cuomo’s stance on this in New York. The State has some of the best fresh water in the country, let alone the world. It feeds one of the largest cities on the planet. It’s utterly idiotic to jeopardize the drinking water of millions of people for the short term gain of a questionable energy source. It’s utter madness – and just goes to show how little regard those at the top of the financial food chain give for the rest of us. They’ll be gone and won’t have to live with the mess.

    1. Foppe

      This has struck you only now? The only difference between what Cuomo is doing and what the rest are doing is that in his case, the effects will be easier to measure, as they will be more concentrated in a smallish area.
      What the bigger fish are doing is probably worse, but the effects are more diffuse, and thus easier to deny.

      1. Brian Donnelly

        Hasn’t just struck me now…been involved in the anti-fracking issue in NY State for a while. Just disappointed in Cuomo.

    2. bob

      He was put there to make the decision, and has sucessfully pawned off any responsibility/accountability to the federal government.

      Pro Pol™.

      What did it cost? How much money did it take to get Carl Paladino to run against him?

      Or, how much money did Carl have to have before the media would take him seriously?

  9. Paul Tioxon

    The nightmare continues with the PA Gov announcing he wants to make my state the Texas of Natural Gas, with Karl Rove on the ground to take down the state dems and pave the way. What’s worse, is the dope refuses to collect a penny even on state land, other than lease. All of the water being used is destroyed with the toxic cocktail from The Future Brownfields Of America Trade Association. Of course, the promises of jobs, too energy to know what to do with and becoming the Kuwait of LNG is all too tempting for pols. Of course, now, they want to run alarm clocks and blenders as well as cars with natural gas. And as usual, since 1975, solar electric is the fuel of the future and always will be, as long as there is somethings they can do with all of the idle drilling equipment from TX, OK, LA etc.

    But that lie is too little too late, as the state is flooded with solar panels. Here is a great source of info about energy by the guy who wrote the books about it for decades. It is cheaper to conserve energy than produce it. But what else is new?

  10. Dan

    The green reveloution is going to run into the law of energy conservation. The total energy in a system remains constant over time, so energy is neither created or destroyed-we merely change its form. So any energy we pull out of the air to make electricity is not available to move moisture from the gulf to Nebraska corn fields for instance. We can’t look at a single turbine and extrapolate, it’s more complicated than that and we arn’t going to get as much as everyone seems to think we will

    1. MRW

      And no one ever discusses the radioactive waste created from producing the rare earths needed to create a wind turbine. The Chinese just dump it into a huge lake and field, which is now filled — FILLED — with radioactive dust blowing in the wind. The lake is six miles wide. Of course, no one ever thinks of these things as long as they can absolve themselves of engaging in what they breathe out every few seconds: CO2.

      Take a look
      “In China, the true cost of Britain’s clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale”:…ns-clean-green-wind-power-experiment-Pollution-disastrous-scale.html

      1. loyal subject

        Clearly the daily mail does discuss it and at great length.

        They do not discuss the environmental harms of oil and gas, or of nuclear energy which dwarf those of rare earth metal mining. Nor does it show that rare earth magnets are in fact necessary for wind turbines or that the mining practices used can’t be made better.

        The Chinese have decided based purely on their religion of absolute greed that they will not protect their environment. That was their choice and blame can’t be put on Britons for this.

        1. MRW

          Loyal Subject

          “They do not discuss the environmental harms of oil and gas, or of nuclear energy which dwarf those of rare earth metal mining.”

          We don’t know how to measure those yet, although I will say that the Japanese spill dwarfs others. Everyone’s an armchair scientist, including me.

      2. Paul Tioxon

        No one discusses the costs of war in Iraq related to oil. Or assassinating Khadaffi for Libyan oil, or the fabricated demonization of Hugo Chavez, who provides so much of our imported oil, and owns CITGO.

        Just listen to the death knell of the nuclear and coal industries, they are done. No new plants will ever be built in the US again. it costs too much for the cheap bastards who get a better return eleswhere and are not interested in asshole right wing radio audiences getting feminazis a migraine. It will only be sun and wind, and the forced feeding of tofu and granola for all registered republicans in forced re education vegan spas.

    2. joe furryay

      This is a most absurd and ignorant analysis. The amount of energy in the wind is so much greater than the amount extracted by windmills near the surface, so so so much greater, as to be negligible even if the earth was covered in them.

      1. Cedric Regula

        Don’t tell Dan that the Universe is expanding and will eventually reach zero degrees Kelvin too. It will just depress him.

  11. MRW

    I’m getting tired of alarmist articles screeching about the dangers of CO2 as a dangerous greenhouse gas. CO2 is only .03% of the atmosphere. When Enron made all its money in the late 80s and early 90s from sulphur dioxide cap-and-trade, they salivated over finding a way to make CO2 a dangerous substance, so they could grab the cap-and-trade on that. Don’t believe me? Look it up, although most articles have been scrubbed. The New Zealanders did one of the more remarkable investigative series on it. (Unbeknownst to most, Enron was behind the creation of Kyoto Protocol.)

    Mr. Ryan should know: the greatest greenhouse substance on the planet is clouds. Talk to any atmospheric physicist doing serious research on it.

    1. Mark P.

      And yet warming from CO2 release is sufficient in the long term — which, at this point, looks somewhere between now and 2025 — to reach the tipping point where enough polar and Siberian ice melts that substantial releases from the vast methane clathrates beneath that ice occur.

      Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
      with the potential to have about 33 times as much effect on the climate over 100 years as a tonne of CO2.

      ‘Interactions with Aerosols Boost Warming Potential of Some Gases’

      1. MRW

        But Mark, what if we are undergoing what the arctic underwent before; namely, it is becoming tropical? there are museums in Northern Norway that show what the arctic used to look like. Palm trees.

        But to your link. I’m having a big problem with GISS reports these days. I prefer other NASA sites and NOAA. The GISS report you cite is based on modeling, and if you read down to the section entitled “A New Approach,” they glibly dismiss observable satellite data (temp, %, concentrations) as being an “abundance-based approach.”

        “You get a much more accurate picture of how human emissions are impacting the climate — and how policy makers might effectively counteract climate change — if you look at what’s emitted at the surface rather than what ends up in the atmosphere,” said Shindell, who used this “emissions-based” approach as the groundwork for this modeling project.

        Look at the scientific assumption! “how human emissions are impacting the climate.” Fercrissakes. The only thing scientists worldwide do not know because they don’t have the evidence for it yet, is “climate sensitivity.” GISS assumes it’s high. It predicts that it is high. And if it’s high, then everyone agrees that would be catastrophic. But no one knows. And NASA satellite data coming off the orbital Aqua satellite (since 2002) is showing results that indicate climate sensitivity is low. And if it’s low, that’s an entirely different story. But we won’t know that for another six years or so.

        Hansen (GISS) is famous for predicting X then creating the models to prove it (like the temp is going to rise 6.5 C in this century). I’m far more circumspect about his work.

        1. MRW

          NASA is sending up more of these Aqua-type satellites by 2013 to hasten the data-collection process. The traditional satellites are experiencing diurnal drift problems and skewing the data.

        2. MRW

          One more thing, Mark,

          Climate sensitivity is the Holy Grail of climate science. Whoever gets that answer first gets the Nobel Prize and gets laid a lot. And lionized.

          1. Capt. S.S. Titanic

            Full speed ahead and damn the icebergs!

            We’re unsinkable. Not only that, until someone proves beyond any reasonable doubt the link between human CO2 emissions and the climate, I am going to continue profiting from the uncertainty.

            I expect to look back from my perch in Antartica in 20 years and say, god that was great fun and I made a most incredible pile of dough!

        3. Mark P.

          ‘But Mark, what if we are undergoing what the arctic underwent before; namely, it is becoming tropical? there are museums in Northern Norway that show what the arctic used to look like. Palm trees.’

          And that’s the point. What if we are seeing the emergence of conditions similar to those that the Artic underwent before?

          That’d be worrisome given merely food supply considerations.

          In the particular case you’re referring to here, a global temperature spike occurred 50 million years ago for reasons we’re not sure of. Genus homo was around at that time, obviously, and our ancestors demonstrably survived. But there were much fewer of us then. Currently, the MIT computer models — for what they’re worth — are predicting a temperature increase of between 5.5 to 7 degrees Celsius by 2100.

          Crop ecologists have a rule of thumb that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, grain yields drop 10 percent.

          And so, for instance, the searing temperatures in western Russia last summer shrank the grain harvest there by 40 percent. So, too, there was the social unrest based on rising food prices in the Middle East — to be sure, prices exacerbated by speculation carried out by the U.S. financial overclass with the free money afforded by Bernanke’s QE policies — that helped trigger the ‘Arab spring.’

          If your point is that the Earth has seen far warmer conditions naturally in its history — well, sure, Earth has naturally seen all kinds of conditions —

          In any case, it’s probably not a natural climate swing we’re cuurently seeing. Sure, the computers models are computer models: garbage in means garbage out. Sure, factors exist we haven’t understood fully — IIUC, some fairly basic aspects of cloud formation. Sure, whatever data gets inputted into the models and how that data gets weighted is, presumably, affected by the policy inferences of, on one hand, the ‘climate justice’ crew and, on the other, the ‘cap-and-trade’ gang, which envisions another global derivatives casino where the market makers will include Goldman Sachs, Morgan Chase, and others of those big players that have already raped and pillaged the global economy so effectively.

          All that said, the basic effect is simple — arguably, grossly so — and has been understood since Fourier and Arrhenius in the 19th century —

          Myself, I’ve taken a Bjorn Lomborg-type policy agnosticism: we shouldn’t precommit to dubious measures that limit developing nations’ current growth to serve draconian long-term policies that counter hypothetical future AGW- caused damage.

          Nevertheless, we are now starting to see not-hypothetical evidence of damage.

          Most obviously, world harvests are looking increasingly worrisome. Not in some notional future, but right now, currently and today.

          hiYes, computer models

          1. MRW


            If you and I were sitting in a bar drinking a beer, we’d generally agree with each other but both of us would be dredging stuff up from our short and long-term memory to make a point, and smiling as we scored in self-satisfaction until the next time one bested the other. ;-) So in that spirit. . . .

            “What if we are seeing the emergence of conditions similar to those that the Artic underwent before?”

            Right. What’s causing it? Could it be the discovery in December 2008 that the breach in the earth’s magnetic shield protection is four earths wide at the north pole? What did those sun explosions across the hemisphere of the sun (which is 100 earths wide in diameter) on August 1, 2, 3, and 18, 2010 do? Those explosions that shocked scientists in their ferosity and caused CMEs to hit us at 1,000,000 mph/hr DIRECTLY within three days. Did they have anything to do with what happened in Europe last fall and winter?

            The MIT models seem to be using the same as Hansen’s.

            If you put this statement into Google “Crop ecologists have a rule of thumb that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, grain yields drop 10 percent” every single result has it as part of the return. [Google’s new algorithm is for shit IMHO.] All quoting from the same original source, which I can’t track down wihout giving up five hours to do it. But I remember hearing a crop/growing guy describe how man could never have developed crops without heat. It was water that made the difference. Can’t find the link to that.

            Here is where we definitely agree:
            Myself, I’ve taken a Bjorn Lomborg-type policy agnosticism: we shouldn’t precommit to dubious measures that limit developing nations’ current growth to serve draconian long-term policies that counter hypothetical future AGW- caused damage.

            I’m aware of the Fournier and Arrhenius stuff.

            “Most obviously, world harvests are looking increasingly worrisome. Not in some notional future, but right now, currently and today.”

            You want to know what one of the biggest problems with world hunger is right now? Proper storage of food. We are losing 40% as a result of not addressing it (water damage, vermin, proper containment). Interesting. It’s always this stuff on the side.

            Just to make one point clear: I don’t have a dog in this fight. One day you could accuse me of being a global warming alarmist. The next day you’d call me a global warming denier. I’m not interested in a stance. I’m not a scientist. I have to read everything four times over to understand it. But something doesn’t sit right with me in what I read about so many climate change arguments (pro & con). I have a fairly acceptable bullshit detector, not the best, but workable, and it’s on slow delay…I take a while to think things through. Something severely bothers me about so many of the “sky is falling” declarations. I’m too old. I’ve been through too many of them that didn’t pan out (remember: it was Global Cooling in the 70s/80s) . So please accept my reluctance to grab the latest as the best and greatest news. You’d have to be an idiot not to recognize danger, or to act on it, or to deny the truth. But I am now becoming, after seven years, deeply annoyed with those who manufacture it to get my attention.. When Al Gore told that scientist who complained about his film’s scientific facts that that was what he was doing — creating fear in spite of the facts — he lost my mental vote.

        4. reslez

          Palm trees? You say this as though you find it reassuring. Palm trees like they have in Florida, yes? In Norway.

          The chaos that climate change will unleash on human civilization is incalculable. If a few years of drought or a flood can propel the movement of armies imagine what palm trees in former Arctic tundra will do.

          1. MRW

            Palm trees in the past? Yes, apparently. When I was there we rounded a bend in the bus and there was a beach (after a 2 metre snow storm in the surrounding area) with people in bikinis sunning themselves. I walked over to touch the water. It was warm. March. I was told it was the Gulf Stream that slipped into this cove.

            As for this: The chaos that climate change will unleash on human civilization is incalculable.

            You don’t know, but it sounds alarming.

    2. Jon Rynn

      A lot of people think that there is some…well, I won’t call it a conspiracy, but that the science behind global warming is somehow influenced by self-interest: the nuke lobby pushes it, goldman sachs wants to trade carbon (I don’t like cap-and-trade, by the way), scientists want grants, etc. The science is overwhelming — however, if I can’t convince you of the science, then even the other parts of the problem, in this case with natural gas — that the supply isn’t very good in any case, and to get to it you might be ruining our most precious resource, water — should be enough to convince you that we need to be careful, at least (the same applies to oil and even coal, that is, there will be supply problems with coal). As it is, I think wind is very ‘doable’, and I actually think most scientists way underestimate the possible consequences of global warming, they are generally very careful, probably too careful.

      1. otto

        Jon I agree they are too careful. I’ve heard a lot of earth scientists speaking privately about it and the general consensus is that things are actually much worse than they can claim in a peer reviewed paper on the subject. If they were really self-interested they’d try harder to save the planet that supports their and everyone else’s life.

        1. Mark P.

          This is also what I’ve been increasingly hearing in the last two years.

          That and the fact that we’re now seeing a sizable impact on global harvest yields is worrisome.

  12. different clue

    Doesn’t New York City get a lot of its water from UpState New York? If so, can’t New York City use its political power to stamp out gas fracking in UpState New York? Or would New York City rather drink fracked up water for millenia to come? Their choice, I suppose.

    It is hard to store electricity. But it is rather easier to store up some of the things which electricity can do. An energy and energy-efficiency engineer blognamed Engineer Poet made that point in a very interesting way in this post right here:
    (His blog, The Ergosphere, is very interesting in general, by the way).

    About wind power, I recently found a book called The Hybrid Electric Home, a history of companies engaged in providing onsite windpower extraction and electric-battery storage systems for individual houses and farms; and a whole range of DC machines using the DC power thereby harvested for storage and release. This became almost forgotten completely under the impact of long-range alternating current shipment over wires during and after the New Deal’s REA initiative. But it may be worth a second look today. Here is the website.

    About manmade global warming: in my amateur layman’s way I am satisfied about the facts and reality of manmade global warming. But those who feel manmade global warming is a liberal myth have a very lucrative contrarian investing opportunity if they really believe what they say and if they are willing to put their money where their mouths are. If you really believe the global is not warming and will not warm, and if you therefor believe the oceans are not rising and will not rise; you might consider buying all the ocean-front coastal sea-level land you can afford to buy, especially in Florida and the Gulf Coast. When the rest of us realize what a silly myth global warming really is, and we want to go (or return) to lovely sea level oceanside beachfront land; you contrarian investors will be able to make a killing selling that land to us for a profitable markup. So what are you climate skeptics waiting for? Buy up all the seaside land you possibly can afford, including with all the money you can possibly borrow; and lay the groundwork today for your fortunes tomorrow.

    1. Cedric Regula

      Interesting links, but there are more ways to skin the cat. Heat pumps are used extensively in the southern parts of the country and are very effective for heat and air, but heat is only good down to around freezing.

      But there is a geothermal heat pump. You dig a 15 ft deep small diameter well in your yard and bury the heat exchanger part in the well. This makes them good for lower ambient temp heating. At some point if it gets cold enough you may have to supplement with gas or electric heat.

      Installing one costs more than a conventional heat pump, but it not too terribly bad.

      Also, I read one guy suggest we run desalination plants with a wind farm. Probably will happen, methinks.

  13. Mark P.

    Shale gas isn’t a great prospect in the USA — indeed, arguably has aspects of being another Ponzi, as one commentator suggested.

    Despite that, methane is the largest component of natural gas and the planet’s crust has enormous amounts of it. Therefore, once we expand our perspective beyond a parochial U.S. one, natural gas remains a very likely candidate to replace oil, especially as LNG for transport fuel purposes.

    So, in fact, the poster known as Capt. S.S. Titanic is onto something, though the Captain’s tongue was probably in his cheek when he said he expected “to look back from my perch in Antarctica in 20 years and say, god that was great fun and I made a most incredible pile of dough!”

    The Russians, among others, aim to exploit the vast reserves of methane and natural gas that exist at the north pole and that are becoming available as Arctic ice thins. Arguably, therefore — except for some misguided justification based on U.S. energy security — there’s really no long-term reason for U.S. companies to destroy our immediate living spaces to extract from shale a resource that’s far more abundantly available elsewhere.

    As for the other energy possibilities, wind power appears, based on EROEI, at present one of the worst technologies out there.

    Long term, the nearest thing to a large-scale energy free lunch for the species is the combination of certain advanced nuclear power technologies: various kinds of breeder reactors, advanced reprocessing, spallation-driven power generation, and so forth. This is nuclear power, but not as most of us know it. For instance, consider a toy like the MYRRHA “reactor” in Belgium —

    MYRRHA applications catalogue

    -Sustainable fission energy: an Accelerator-Driven System (ADS) for transmuting long-lived radioactive waste

    -Sustainable energy: development of fast spectrum reactor and fusion technology

    -Enabling technologies for renewable energies: production of neutron irradiated silicon

    -Health care: production of radioisotopes for nuclear medicine

    That said, new nuclear remains nuclear. Where there’s uranium and plutonium, the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation exists.

  14. Dan

    The energy in the wind is considerable but not infinite. If we start trying to pull terawats out of it there will be problems. It is not going tp support infanite growth any more than petroleum is. The way forward will require more efficency and less waste. Verry few will be able to ignore that and everyone else will have to adapt voluntary or otherwise.

    1. skeptical inquirer

      The wind has an energy of approximately 1.5 million terawatts per year. By contrast, running every last thing worldwide requiring energy off of wind power would consume roughly 25 terawatts per year. Do you have any evidence at all that wind power will be disruptive? It seems like pure speculation on your part.

  15. Freude Bud

    There are so many misrepresentations in this piece that it’s hard to know where to start, but, to point out just a few:

    1) power generation plants have 35% efficiency. Actually, diesel cogeneration plants–installations that combine electricity and heat production–for example, can reach overall efficiency levels of up to 95%. Combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs), which use natural gas, and exhaust gases leaving the turbine have enough energy to generate steam and thus run a steam turbine, have combined efficiency of 60%. (If you are interested, Vaclav Smil discusses the efficiency of various engines and turbines in Prime Movers of Globalization.)

    2) wind power is an option for national power needs. Yes, wind can provide a portion of the power needs of the country, but not a large portion, by any means. Wind has a far lower power density than any of the fossil fuels. For example, a coal or gas or oil or nuclear plant would require a relatively small amount of space in order to generate the power needs of a medium-sized city of 1 million people. A wind power farm would require 1,000 sq. miles in order to generate enough power for it. (See The End of Oil, by Paul Roberts.) Part of the reason for the huge space requirements is that the efficiency of modern wind turbines is about 50%, not to mention the intermittency problems.

    3. currently only 25% of natural gas comes from shale gas. Yes, that’s true, but it is 25% of total US production in 2010 from next to nothing in 2006. That represents a revolution in productive capabilities. The EIA predicts that fully 75% of all natural gas production in 2035 will come from unconventional gas production. For the consequences of this, see … something which would actually be paid attention to by the industry in question.

    I’m not a gas guy, so I can only point you to the obvious problems, but:

    a) Yes, the EIA is often over-optimistic about domestic potential, but all energy analysts take this into account and it is one of the best sources of information on energy in the world. When it comes to energy data, most analysts see US data as true, European data as half-true, and the rest of the world as BS, more or less.

    b) It looks like fracking can have serious consequences for groundwater. The industry refuses to pony up the secret of what chemicals they are using. Clearly, that has to be dealt with. But I don’t think there can be any serious doubt as to the productive possibilities of the technique.

    c) Remarks about how natural gas might have to cost as much as $6/MBtu in order to return a profit as if that is expensive. The reason the price is depressed is because of so much extra production … it wasn’t long ago the price was well above $6/MBtu in the US and it remains well above that price internationally, especially for LNG where it is more than double that price (at least for some cargoes.) If we could get the promised volumes at $6/MBtu or $12/MBtu that would still be economical from the perspective of consumers.

    1. Jon Rynn

      Freude Bud, thanks for taking the time.

      1) Yes, if you put in co-generation, you can get high efficiency (95% sounds high to me for a commercial operation, but I will check out Smil, he is reliable, although I sometimes disagree with him). But the vast majority of plants are very low efficiency, as you point out. The question seems to be, what is the industry actually doing, even though they could be doing it much better? For instance, the frackers could drastically decrease their carbon emissions, but they usually don’t. Over on DailyKos, a commenter pointed out that the drillers just drill and hand over to the operators, they don’t care if there is gas leakage. If it was up to me I would require all power plants to put in co-generation, but I don’t see regulation getting stronger, at least in the short term.

      2)I addressed the wind-uses-up-space issue in my blog post about an op-ed by Robert Bryce. Basically, the actual space that wind turbines take up is small, and farmers are welcoming them as a second, and often primary, source of income, which allows them to farm the same area at the same time. I don’t believe in putting wind turbines close to people; the noise means they have to be some distance away. That blog postalso gives references about intermittency, basically, the more windmills you have, spread apart, particularly in a large area like the US, the greater percentage of the electrical load it can bear. And there are plenty of other renewable/efficiency technologies we can use, “wind” was a stand-in for a whole suite of possibilities, sorry if I gave the impression that wind would do it all.

      3) a) the shocking thing to me is that even assuming that EIA is right, fracking only leads to a modest increase in current natural gas production, from about 24 tcf to 26, so it’s basically replacing rapidly (relatively) depleting natural gas. That is not a game-changer, it’s like running real fast to stay in the same place, which from what I’ve read has been a problem with natural gas for a long time
      b) nuff said
      c) You are right, I assume, natural gas should go up in price and then fracking will make more economic sense. However, there is at least a short term problem which apparently is driving companies into bankruptcy and could seriously dampen interest in fracking….which might be a good thing, so that at the very least — hopefully — the government can figure out what chemicals are going in and what might come out. Although when the price goes up, wind, etc. will look better by comparison

      1. Cedric Regula

        “If it was up to me I would require all power plants to put in co-generation, but I don’t see regulation getting stronger, at least in the short term.”

        Like I mentioned above anything coal or natural gas built maybe 1990 or later used waste heat recovery turbines. This makes a NG plant up to 60% efficient and coal plant 50% efficient. The difference is a coal plant has higher in-plant load due to much more equipment.

        Here’s how it’s done with a NG plant.

        It may be possible to retrofit old coal plants, but not easily. They don’t leave much extra space in them.

        But the problem will be with economics. When they design a new plant, they tell all the major equipment suppliers that equipment needs to be designed for 40 year operating life. They amortize cap cost over 40 years.

        Right now, we have 300 of our 600 coal plants that are more than 40 years old. Additionally, these were exempted from newer EPA rules adopted in the 80s.

        The EPA just announced these plants now need to comply with 80s rules (which say nothing about CO2) and would need fly ash collection, SO2 scrubbers, and NOx conversion equipment. Then they need waste heat recovery. Plus they may need a new turbine and all other major equipment. Then we are ready to think about CO2, but there isn’t really much they can do there because carbon sequestering is still pretty much a drawing board concept, and there are no carbon sequestering sites.

        So, what would you do?

        1. Jon Rynn

          Late reply but….

          I would first, have a national program to make residential and commercial buildings as energy self-reliant as possible. My favorite technology that is very successful that few have heard about are geothermal heat pumps, which would cut way down on the need for natural gas and coal. In fact, I figured out that if you installed heat pumps in all residential and commercial buildings, and redirected the saved natural gas to electricity generation, you could shut down all the coal plants.

          Then there is retrofitting, of course, and solar panels and solar water heaters, all the rage in Israel, China, and other places…then I would have a national network of wind farms connected together with a functioning well-designed and constructed national grid, with probably some CSP, and then I would put in as much sodium-sulfur batteries and other large battery systems as possible, and only then would I use whatever natural gas would be needed that would be left over…and of course, this is assuming the transportation system is electrified, which is a whole other mega-massive-mongo program, of high-speed rail, transit, small low-range electric cars, which leads to another humungous construction project, densifying cities and towns…not sure if this is more information than you were looking for

          1. Cedric Regula

            This link is getting aged, unfortunately.

            You ideas sound about the same as mine. I wasn’t aware that geothermal could do away with all coal plants (45% of our generating capacity), but that’s great if they could.

            Plus I would add that solar could show promise in the SW soon. And when summing wind availability, solar availability, and demand curves, there is a lessening of the intermittency problem of power.

            Also, the American Wind Assoc. doesn’t even think we need a “national grid” per se. There would just need to be some major lines connecting good wind areas to major markets on a regional basis. But they are worried this will need legal and state coordination, otherwise it won’t happen.

            That’s why I would prefer to see some Federal program managing our energy transition. Like if we had a department of energy, or something like that. I don’t want Wall Street getting anywhere near it.

            I just discovered the Aspen Institute. They seem to be on the same wavelength as far as energy options, with a natural phaseout of coal and nuclear, and NG being the last to go. Although they are accepting the fact that the private sector may have to do it all on their own.

          2. Cedric Regula

            I had one other idea, that as far as I know is original and patentable.

            Small, light electric cars with a range of 60 miles or so is what the state of the art can give us now.

            But that leaves the problem of what to do about Soccer Moms in America, and Summer Vacation Drivers in America.

            I say we have them buy the small electric car for day to day transportation, and have car rental agencies have Soccer Mom vehicles, trucks, and 300 mile range electric-gasoline hybrids available for rent for these important occasions.

            But I worry I may be accused of fascism for suggesting it.

          3. Jon Rynn

            Cedric, just in case you get back here, thanks for the response. I think your idea about cars is good, because I think we should be thinking about Actually Existing electric cars, which have fairly low range and speed, but are perfectly fine for most driving, at least in relatively high-density cities and suburbs.

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