Why we must stop coal to gas transition and fracking

The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is now 394 parts per million (ppm) but top climate scientists and biologists say that it must be urgently reduced to about 300 ppm for a safe and sustainable planet for all peoples and all species (for details simply Google 300.org or 300 ppm CO2). However the World is now undergoing a coal to gas transition, a gas rush and a gas boom, with gas derived from conventional on-shore and off-shore sources and also from shale deposits and shallower coal seams that are being subject to hydraulic fracturing or “frackingâ€. Because methane (85% of natural gas) leaks (3.3% US average, up to 7.9% from fracking) and is 105 times worse as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 20 year time frame with aerosol impacts included, a coal to gas transition represents a huge threat to a World that must get to zero greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by about 2050 if it is to avoid a disastrous 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise.

Calculation of the greenhouse gas (GHG) impact of leaked natural gas

Natural gas is about 85% methane (CH4) and burning 1 tonne CH4 yields 2.75 tonnes carbon dioxide (CO2). Thus gas is not “clean†as asserted by pro-gas lobbyists and politicians and is in fact a dirty source of energy. However if there is industrial leakage of CH4 (estimated to be 3.3% in the US from US EPA data) [1], then one must also consider the greenhouse gas (GHG) effect of the leaked methane which is 105 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas on a 20 year time scale with aerosol impacts included [2-5]. These considerations render false the position of pro-gas lobbyists who plead for a coal to gas transition, falsely arguing that gas burning is “cleaner†than coal burning.

Thus in Victoria, Australia, gas-fired power stations (0.60 – 0.90 tonnes CO2-e/MWh, average 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) are roughly twice as efficient in producing energy as brown coal-burning power stations (1.21-1.53 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) according to a report by Green Energy Markets commissioned by Environment Victoria (EV) [6]. However, at a systemic leakage of 0.94% the GHG pollution due to gas-fired power would roughly double to about 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh, equivalent to that of Hazelwood, the dirtiest coal-fired power station in Victoria.

If the systemic gas leakage rate is 3.3% (US average) then the combustion of gas for power would 2.3 times as dirty GHG-wise as coal-fired Hazelwood. If the systemic gas leakage rate is 7.9% (the upper estimate with shale formation-derived gas) [7]) then a coal to gas transition would yield power sector GHG pollution roughly 4.7 times as dirty as from coal-fired Hazelwood.

Because methane leaks and is so much worse than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas (GHG), Professor Robert Howarth, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York has concluded that “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. We do not intend that our study be used to justify the continued use of either oil or coal, but rather to demonstrate that substituting shale gas for these other fossil fuels may not have the desired effect of mitigating climate warmingâ€. [7].

Gas GHG impact ignored by Mainstream media (MSM) in Western Lobbyocracies

US President Barack Obama has outrageously and falsely lumped planet-threatening natural gas under "clean energy"; permitted a massive expansion of offshore gas and oil drilling; and supported the Alaska Gas Pipeline, massive expansion of on-shore gas drilling and an oil-to-gas shift for transportation. One would have hoped that the 2010 Gulf oil and gas disaster tragically devastating the coastal environments of the US Gulf States would have prompted sensible, informed public discussion about the immense threat that natural gas (mostly methane) poses to Humanity and the Biosphere.

At least one news report in 2010 sounded the alarm about methane from the Gulf oil spill disaster (variously known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the BP oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the BP oil disaster, or the Macondo blowout): “According to John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanographer who is studying the impact of methane from the BP oil spill, the crude oil emanating from the seafloor [up to 100,000 barrels oil equivalent per day = 0.013 million tonnes oil equivalent] contains about 40% methane compared to about 5% found in typical crude oil deposits. The risk is great, as marine life will be suffocated as a result of the increased methane levels. The Gulf of Mexico will eventually have "dead zones" to deal with where oxygen is so depleted that nothing lives. This is significant and can forever alter the water/life composition. "This is the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history," Kessler said.†[8].

The amount of methane released over the 86 days between the initial blow-out and capping the well-head (20 April – 15 July 2010) can be estimated at 0.4 x (0.013 million tonnes methane /day) x 86 days = 0.447 million tonnes CH4 = 0.447 Mt CH4 x 105 x (44/16) (Mt CO2-e / Mt CH4) = 129 Mt CO2-e. Fortunately, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “John Kessler of Texas A&M University and colleagues surveyed the Gulf waters during the leak as well as after the wellhead was sealed, and their results indicate that a vigorous bloom of bacteria degraded virtually all of the methane released form the well within 120 days of the initial blowout.†[9].

Australian novelist Peter Carey recently observed that the really important news is the news that is not reported. Ditto, "The holes in history are what makes sense of the thing" (Aarons and Loftus, "The Secret War Against the Jews", p12). This is well exampled by President Barack Obama avoiding mention of natural gas in his recent speech on the Gulf oil disaster from the Oval Office – completely missing from Obama’s Gulf oil-and-gas disaster speech was one key word: gas. Read through his speech and you will find that he used the following words in descending order of occurrence: oil (24 times), energy (14), drilling/drill (8), clean energy (6), environmental (4), God/He (4), Al Qaeda (1), recession (1), gas (0). [10].

Similarly, a search of the entire ABC site for “Robert Howarth†yielded one (1) result relating to the Cornell professor (and that due to me in a reader comment thread), noting that the ABC is the Australian equivalent of the BBC). Searches of The Australian newspaper (Australian national flagship of the Murdoch media empire) and of The Age ( the Melbourne quality newspaper of the Fairfax media empire and arguably Australia’s most progressive Mainstream medium) reveal zero (0) and one (1) report, respectively of the findings of Professor Robert Howarth (The Age report being a letter from me that it kindly published).

Shale deposit and coal seam fracking, coal seam gas (GSG) and gas-based GHG pollution in Australia

Australia is a world leader in annual per capita greenhouse gas pollution, coal exports and liquid natural gas (LNG) exports. Australia is also part of the global gas rush, gas boom and fracking-based GasLand scenario (see the movie GasLand about the impact of fracking in the US). However the Liberal National Party-National Party Coalition opposition and the Labor Governments (collectively known as the Lib-Labs) have identical overall climate policies of “5% off 2000 Domestic GHG pollution†coupled with expanding coal and liquid natural gas (LNG) exports. The Libs gave a “direct Action “policy (too ;little too late) whereas Labor has a disastrously counterproductive Carbon Tax-ETS plan that yields massive increases in Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution in 2020 and 2050 over that in 2000. Thus the following estimates of Domestic and Exported GHG pollution in Mt CO2-e and based on Treasury, ABARE and US EIA data (noting that coal and gas exports are predicted to increase annually by 2.6% and 9%, respectively):

2000: 496 (Domestic) + 504.9 (coal exports) + 16.8 (LNG exports) = 1017.8.

2009: 600 (Domestic) + 784 (coal exports) + 31 (LNG exports) = 1,415 (total).

2020: 621 (Domestic) + 1,039 (black coal exports) + 80 (LNG exports) + 59 (brown coal exports) = 1,799.

2050: 527 (Domestic) + 2902 (coal exports) + 1,061 (LNG exports) = 4,409.

However these estimates do not take into account an approximate doubling of electricity sector GHG pollution due to a Labor Government-adumbrated coal to gas transition (and indeed an approximately 5 fold increase if fracked shale gas is used). Hydraulic fracking of shale seams is becoming controversial throughout the world, including Australia (see the movie “GasLandâ€). Thus the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking) of shale deposits with water containing numerous chemical additives has been banned in France and England and New York has imposed a moratorium on the practice. In Australia there are bipartisan concerns about fracking procedures violating prime agricultural land and contaminating and depleting aquifers e.g. the Great Artesian Basin, a huge source of water in this dry continent.

The main arguments against “fracking†of shale deposits and shallower coal seams for gas are destruction of prime agricultural land in a hungry world; pollution and depletion of underground aquifers; and that gas is dirty, generates CO2 on combustion and due to leakage can be much dirtier GHG-wise than coal or oil (if there is a coal to “fracked gas†conversion. there will a circa 5-fold increase in electricity sector GHG pollution in Australia).

However a fundamental objection to “fracking†and a coal to gas conversion is that the World is rapidly running out of time to deal with the worsening climate emergency. Thus in 2009 the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WBGU, Wissenshaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen) issued a report entitled “Solving the climate dilemma: the budget approach†in which it estimated that for a 75% chance of avoiding a disastrous 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise the World must emit no more than 600 billion tones of CO2 between 2010 and zero emissions in 2050. In mid-2011 Australia has already exceeded its “fair share†of this terminal global GHG pollution budget and any Australian GHG pollution now is at the expense of the entitlement of all other countries. [11].

Summary

Natural gas represents a huge threat to the World if, as adumbrated by corporations and governments, there is a coal to gas transition. Ignored by MPs, mainstream media and MPs in the Western Lobbyocracies is the reality that because methane (85% of natural gas) leaks (3.3% US average, up to 7.9% from fracking) and is 105 times worse as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 20 year time frame with aerosol impacts included, a coal to gas transition represents a huge threat to a World that must get to zero greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by about 2050 if it is to avoid a disastrous 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise. Hydraulic fracturing for shale deposit gas destroys agricultural land in a hungry world, pollutes and depletes aquifers and increases the systemic GHG pollution associated with heat and power generation. All countries and intranational jurisdictions must follow the examples of France, England and New York State and ban shale deposit and coal seam fracking. The World is running out of time to seriously tackle the worsening climate emergency. The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is now 394 parts per million (ppm) but top climate scientists and biologists say that it must be urgently reduced to about 300 ppm for a safe and sustainable planet for all peoples and all species (see 300.org:) [12] but the World is remorselessly heading in the opposite direction . Stop the coal to gas transition and stop fracking the Planet.

For references, see page two:

References

[1]. David Lewis, "EPA confirms natural gas leakage rates", The Energy Collective, 7 December 2010.

[2]. Drew T. Shindell , Greg Faluvegi, Dorothy M. Koch , Gavin A. Schmidt , Nadine Unger and Susanne E. Bauer , “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissionsâ€, Science 30 October 2009:

Vol. 326 no. 5953 pp. 716-718.

[3]. Shindell et al (2009), Fig.2: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.figures-only .

[4]. Katharine Sanderson, “Aerosols make methane more potentâ€, Nature News, 29 October 2009.

[5]. Dr Drew Shindell, quoted in Mark Henderson, “Methane's impact on global warming far higher than previously thoughtâ€, The Times, 30 October 2009.

[6]. Green Energy Markets, “Fast-tracking Victoria's clean energy future to replace Hazelwoodâ€, 2010.

[7]. Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formationsâ€, Climatic Change, 2011.

[8]. Todd Schoenberger, “Methane gas concerns arose from Gulf oil spillâ€, Taipan’s Tipping Point Alert, 18 June 2010.

[9]. AAAS, “Science: Gulf bacteria quickly digested spilled methane, research saysâ€, 6 January 2011.

[10]. Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill, Oval Office, White House,15 June 2010: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-nation-bp-oil-spill .

[11]. Gideon Polya, “Shocking analysis by country of years left to zero emissionsâ€, Green Blog, 1 August 2011.

[12]. “300.org – return atmosphere CO2 to 300 ppmâ€, 300.org.


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Dr Gideon Polya
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Guest Rob Plastow

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If you haven't already seen the documentary Gaslands, definitely give it a watch. Get informed and do whatever you can to stop fracking coming to a town near you!

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Yesterdays arguments, it's been around 25 years since dire CO2 caused temperature rises were predicted. Long enough for Hanses and others predictions to be shown as massive overestimates. Move with the times, we have moved over the "safe" CO2 limit yet the global temp has stalled for the last 12-15 years. Anyone with a resonable sense of curiosity would be looking at other drivers as well. Cosmic rays anyone, Svensmark, Kirkby and CERN. read Nigel Calders The Chilling Stars for a background and see how historical coincidences abound, not just withini the last hundred but over millions of years.   

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Guest custodinho

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Leah Karpus, I loved your recent story 'Fracking in Canada' published in Alive Magazine. I was moved to action and would love an electronic version to share with others. Kindly, Tracy Custodinho David Suzuki Foundation Community Leader

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Hi Tracy, Thank you very much for your comment! Alive is currently in the midst of re-vamping their website. When it is complete, it will be available online on the alive.com website. Sorry for the wait but I hope that helps! Thanks again, Tracy, Leah

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Guest D. A. Ryan

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Good post, I would clarify that Fracking is "under review" in the UK...which is starting to sound suspiciously like "ok"! There seems to be, as you point out a collective sticking fingers in ears and going "NANANA..not listening" by Government and industry to the potential problems of shale gas. If we're to even remotely get serious about stopping dangerous climate change, shale gas (and Shale oil and Tar sands) has to be stopped. The Cornell univeristy study you mention isn't getting the interest it should, probably because nobody likes their answers. I made my own comments on this matter some time ago here: http://daryanenergyblog.wordpress.com/2011/05/29/is-shale-gas-worse-than-coal/

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