MacKay and Stone: Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use

shale A report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. MacKay is Sustainable Energy – without the hot air person, and a rather infrequently updated blog. He's a pretty sensible chap and the new report is a challenge to all the folk who go around unthinkingly saying that shale gas emissions mean that its worse than coal (and for the people who think at least a bit, but rely on Howarth, they provide some reasons why Howarth may be wrong). At least, if you don't agree, you'd better have a good reason.

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Shale-gas is a pretty complicated thing that raises a lot of angst. It's the oil and gas industry, which of course nobody trusts to do the right thing (for good reason since the right thing is only making their shareholders money). Nobody believes anything they say and, when industry claims that shale-gas is better than coal, those claims are often met with the same skepticism that oil and gas companies have fostered in the AGW-denialist camp.

But, can it be done correctly to minimize GHG emissions and protect things like groundwater?

Absolutely it can. The EPA is already establishing regulations governing flowback from a well so that methane emssions must be captured and flowed into pipelines. It's a great rule. Until that's in force, the methane emissions must be flared, which also reduces emissions.

Can groundwater be protected? It wouldn't be hard. Strict rules about well casing in shale-gas wells as well as disposal wells. Well funded regulatory agencies who can send out an army of inspectors with teeth. Mandatory microseismic monitoring to watch how fractures are propagating during fracturing operations. Fracture fluids must be held in steel tanks. Are these politically possible? In some places, yes, others no. In Europe? Absolutely yes, because governments aren't afraid to set strong regulations.

Now, do you throw the whole shale-gas "bridge" concept out at a federal level if a place like Texas won't protect its environment? Harder to say. The practical person in me says no, because the AGW problem is much bigger than just Texas or even the U.S. Plus, over time, maybe Texas can change its ways. The idealist in me says yes.

But, since we're getting really short on time to fix this problem, I tend to think practical solutions will be the ones most needed and idealism won't get us nearly as far.

By Miguelito (not verified) on 09 Sep 2013 #permalink

Natural gas also has the advantage of creating much less air pollution.

Unfortunately shale gas (and shale oil) extraction requires a much larger on the ground footprint than production from traditional oil and gas reservoirs. The larger footprint is due to larger drilling pads to provide room for fracturing tanks, pumps and other extra equipment, and especially from the more closely spaced production sites required by the nature of the shale reservoirs and the horizontal reach of the fracturing process. This means lots of extra environmental damage when the production is occuring somewhere other than a cotton or other crop field.

I'm not sure why environmentalists chose to emphasize the relatively minor issues of groundwater contamination. The surface over some of the shale plays is now an intense industrial area.

Andy: "I’m not sure why environmentalists chose to emphasize the relatively minor issues of groundwater contamination."

I do. It's because fear sells. "They" are putting poison into your bodies and even worse your children's bodies. The parallel with the anti-nuclear crowd is pretty obvious. And so is the parallel with the anti-vaxers.

I certainly agree that the effective exploitation of unconventional fuel reserves is a grave climate risk. But I fail to see how politics that takes more than a few liberties with the evidence is ultimately likely to achieve the desired outcome.

Isn't the last sentence in section 4g of the executive summary the real issue?

"The view of the authors is that without global climate policies (of the sort already advocated by the UK) new fossil fuel exploitation is likely to lead to an increase in cumulative GHG emissions and the risk of climate change."

It's ironic that we may advocate these policies but we're not about to enact them. We're not unique in this of course, it's not a easy sell to the electorate and no politician wants to be the one that says "we plan to leave this stuff in the ground - it'll cost you more to live as a result, but your grandchildren will probably be better off as a result".

[As long as you're aware of The production of shale gas could increase global cumulative GHG emissions if the fossil fuels displaced by shale gas are used elsewhere. This potential issue is not specific to shale gas and would apply to the exploitation of any new fossil fuel reserve too. Its misleading to quote 4g by itself to imply that its anything bad about shale gas in particular.

Yes, we already have policies and advocate them. However, I think that isn't well-costed stuff, somewhat like pension obligations. It will crack as we approach it -W]

By Gilbert Smith (not verified) on 11 Sep 2013 #permalink

"What about “Methane emissions estimate from airborne measurements over a western United States natural gas field”"

Judging the average production practices of the entire U.S. by examining a small producing region with very few regulations isn't particularly good policy making. They've known for a long time that Utah's emissions were higher than average.

Besides, this study and a related one in Colorado aren't going to be relevant in the new regulatory world. The results of the Colorado one, which also showed elevated methane levels, aren't particularly reliable if only because the regulations changed between the measurements and the publishing of the paper (in Colorado, companies must now capture the gas during post-fracking flowback). Further, the EPA's new regulations will require capture during flowback across the country.

It's a great rule.

By Miguelito (not verified) on 11 Sep 2013 #permalink

> [Its misleading to quote 4g by itself to imply that its anything bad about shale gas in particular.]

I had no intention to mislead. The fact that 4g is not specific to shale gas does not change the impact on the environment of exploiting shale gas. We are so invested in a hydrocarbon based economy that if we are not very careful we will burn all the hydrocarbons we can extract. There is no benefit in saying "these are no worse than any others" it's the cumulative effect that matters and they all contribute.

[Sorry, I could have phrased that better. I still think its misleading to quote 4g by itself; I don't think you had any intent to mislead deliberately.

I don't think we'll burn all we can extract; there's just too much coal around. But we are (for example) constantly exploring for new oil resources; it doesn't make much sense to forbid (or attempt to forbid, or argue to forbid) fracking on the no-new-hydrocarbons grounds, if we don't make that argument for oil (and yes, I know that in some instances (Arctic drilling) it is made).

I think that abundant shale gas could reduce overall emissions by displacing coal, if there was enough of it. And its a lot cleaner, and less disruptive -W]

By Gilbert Smith (not verified) on 12 Sep 2013 #permalink

Isn't the problem with Shale gas really that it will encourage investment in gas-powered electricity generating plant with a potential life of 30+ years, so locking in FF consumption for their lifetime?

And of course, the lure of "cheap" gas, ("cheap" because we don't price in the environmental consequences), means that instead of making the decision to move to renewables now we keep putting it off.

By turboblocke (not verified) on 12 Sep 2013 #permalink

Vive Le Fossil Fuel Energy.

I bet we go for the 'all coal' + 'shale gas' option. ;)

By Chris Reynolds (not verified) on 16 Sep 2013 #permalink

> the relatively minor issues
> of groundwater contamination.

Because they weren't saying -what- they pumped down the wells; now that California requires saying -what- they don't have to say -how-much-.

Trust. It's what makes the economy work.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 16 Sep 2013 #permalink


That shale gas will encourage investment in gas-powered electricity generating plants isn’t a problem. It is a benefit. Gas replacing coal yields lower environmental impact and greenhouse emissions.

By Paul Kelly (not verified) on 17 Sep 2013 #permalink

'Gas replacing coal yields lower environmental impact and greenhouse emissions.'
That should read ' slightly lower '. Try ' hydro and nuclear replacing coal...' instead.

By John ONeill (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink