Welcome to the golden age of fracking
Shale gas - a game changer. Illustration: Marcellus Protest / Creative Commons
Fracking, exploitation of gas from shale, is growing fast. This is game-changing both for energy policy and climate policy. There is now more, and dirtier fossil gas around. The resistance is also growing, and fracking is banned in some countries.
Fracking, short for “hydraulic fracturing”, is a way to get at deep natural gas pockets in shales. You drill a couple of kilometre-deep holes, force down a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure. The pressurised water opens up cracks.
The chemicals are there to make the water more slippery so it can force itself through small cracks. The sand keeps the cracks open. Horizontal drilling is used to increase the surface attacked.
The problem, compared to conventional natural gas drilling, is that more of the gas leaks out. This includes its main constituent methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and other volatile hydrocarbons. The chemicals and hydrocarbons cannot be collected entirely, so they may end up in the groundwater and drinking water.
Fracking is not really new technology, but it became profitable in the US with the rising energy prices last decade, and has expanded very fast.
In 2011 a third of US natural gas production came from fracking, and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects this share to increase to 46 per cent by 2035 within the context of increasing gas use.
The EIA estimates the shale gas reserve in the US and another 32 countries (say half the world)1 at roughly the same 6000 trillion cubic feet as the proven reserves of conventional natural gas.
Fracking has essentially doubled the gas reserve, adding more than 10 per cent to the carbon content of the total fossil reserves.
Until recently some NGOs in both the US and Europe have tended to accept or even embrace natural gas as the lesser evil compared to coal (and an ally against the coal industry), as well as being the simplest and cheapest way to balance intermittent renewables such as wind power and photovoltaic solar power.
Notably, the Sierra Club in the US accepted large donations ($26 million) from Cheasapeake Energy, a big natural gas producer, as was reported by Time magazine in February 2012. Much of the money went to fund the very successful campaign against coal. When Carl Pope was succeeded as executive in 2010 by Michael Brune, the Sierra Club stopped this funding, and actually declined an offer of an additional $30 million, because fracking has changed what natural gas is.
Much damage has been done, not least because the management of the Sierra Club did not tell its members where it had got its money. But Carl Pope was not alone:
“National groups such as the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have backed natural gas as a so-called bridge fuel that can help the country move away from coal and oil without waiting for renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, to catch up,” wrote The Wall Street Journal on 22 December 2009.
Their case was conditional on four assumptions:
- Gas replaces coal for electricity (not renewables or efficiency improvements).
- Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas power are half those of coal power, or less.
- Other environmental consequences aside from carbon dioxide emissions are not as bad as coal.
- The reserves of natural gas are much lower than for coal, so if we use most of the gas but leave most of the coal in the ground we have a chance to save the world.
The first point has always been contested; for example why should it be supposed that 2050 is a better time than 2012 to build wind power, and that the present rate of wind power installation is as high as it can get. Also most gas (in the US) is used for heat, not for power.
Points 2 and 3 used to be true. The carbon emissions from a new gas power station are about 340 gram/kWh. Emissions from coal and lignite power are around 700–1200 grams/kWh, or even more. In a life cycle perspective, the difference is even more marked, because coal mining generally emits more methane than conventional natural gas production. Gas emits no particles, no sulphur and much less NOx than coal.
Fracking may have changed all that.
According to the US EPA, conventional natural gas emits 0.38 grams of methane per MJ whereas shale gas emits 0.6 gram/MJ.
A pioneering study by Howarth et al 2,3, claims that over a 20-year period shale gas is far worse than coal, and over a 100-year period about as bad as coal. The difference is explained by the fact that methane, leaking from the shale, is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it does not stay so long in the atmosphere.
By convention, the warming potentials of greenhouse gases are indexed against carbon dioxide in a 100-year perspective. The IPCC has compiled the accepted values for 100 years, for 20 years, and for 500 years.
Also, recent research4 has shown that methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than thought. The 100-year value, which was 21 when the Kyoto protocol was written in 1997 and which was increased to 25 by the IPCC, is now about 33, due to interactions with the stratosphere and aerosols
So there is more natural gas, it emits more methane and the methane causes more global warming than was supposed.
But Peak Oil? Security of Supply?
This is the point the Obama administration makes. Fracking in the US makes the US less dependent on fuel imports.
But wait a minute. The really difficult part of energy dependence is the supply of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. They are made from petroleum, not from natural gas. Fracking solves the wrong problem. Oil dependence cannot be helped by more natural gas.
That is, unless it is used for gas-to-liquid (GTL) methods of producing gasoline etc.
If so, it is at a still higher price for the climate. Even with conventional gas GTL diesel there is no greenhouse gas reduction5 compared to diesel from oil. Shale diesel or gasoline are worse.
The consequence of shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuels such as Canadian tar sand is that the connection between Peak Oil and climate is now broken.
Peak Oil can be averted in two ways: with more fossil fuels or with less fossil fuels.
Either through fuel efficiency, electric cars, biogas and other biofuels, less transport and modal shifts from road to rail. Or by using shale gas, tar sand, and coal as feedstock for liquids.
GTL looks very promising for investors, according to the Financial Times6. Gas is cheaper than for many years, thanks to fracking, but oil is still expensive. Shell invested $19bn into the Pearl GTL in Qatar.
The frackers are moving fast, but so is resistance.
France has had a moratorium on fracking since 2011. Bulgaria banned it 2012. So did the state of Vermont in the US, Quebec in Canada (April 2012) and at least parts of Switzerland. Romania and the Czech Republic are preparing similar moves. In Sweden, exploration has stopped. The UK government recently7 adopted a negative stance.
The NGOs, at least in Europe, are hostile to fracking, and are getting more organised.
In April 2012 a large number of European NGOs, including FOE, Greenpeace, and EEB lobbied the European Parliament calling for a ban on fracking. This was motivated by an EP report by Polish MEP Boguslaw Sonik for the environment committee8. The report makes no mention of “climate”, “warming” or even “methane”.
The International Energy Agency threw its weight behind shale gas with a report entitled “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas”, issued late May.
This is how the IEA sets the scene in its summary: “Natural gas is poised to enter a golden age, but will do so only if a significant proportion of the world’s vast resources of unconventional gas ... can be developed profitably”..
The Golden Age means a more secure supply of energy for (rich) importer countries, greater energy diversity, and lower energy prices generally. This Golden Age is built on fracking.
There is however one big “but”:
“The outlook for unconventional gas production around the world depends critically on how the environmental issues ... are addressed.”
In other words: if we can’t defeat the environmental NGOs and persuade the politicians and the environmental agencies to allow fracking, the Golden Age will not come.
The report admits that we don’t know the extent of the greenhouse gas emissions that will result from fracking. In fact they provide nothing more than a diagram on methane emissions with an unsourced “typical value” highlighted. And: “If current emissions are poorly known and the numbers above mere estimates, projecting future methane emissions is fraught with even more uncertainties.”
It is also mentioned that the Europeans have a precautionary principle in their legislation.
But instead of guessing what emissions will be or waiting for better data, the IEA recommends seven Golden Rules.
The rules are:
- Measure, disclose and engage.
- Watch where you drill (“minimise impacts on the local community, heritage, existing land use, individual livelihoods and ecology”).
- Isolate wells and prevent leaks.
- Be ready to think big (many small holes can make a big leak, unless coordinated).
- Treat water responsibly.
- Eliminate venting, minimise flaring and other emissions.
- Ensure a consistently high level of environmental performance.
If implementation of these safeguards is seen as a sure thing, there is one other issue, the IEA admits. Fracking gas will not only replace coal, it will also mean less renewables. Wind and solar will lose 5 per cent globally and 10 per cent in the US up to 2035, compared to the baseline. The cheaper gas can also “postpone the moment at which renewable sources of energy become competitive without subsidies and, all else being equal, therefore make renewables more costly in terms of the required levels of support”.
On the other hand, says the IEA, gas can balance wind and solar. And lower electricity prices increase customer acceptance of more electricity, which can be supplied by wind and solar. (Do you follow?)
More electricity. The golden age will also come at the expense of efficiency, according to IEA models.
The United States and Canada are the pioneers of fracking, and have a big stake in its future. The IEA also sees a big future for fracking in China and India, otherwise projected as big importers, and Australia. They are less sanguine about Europe.
This could be construed as an effort at a strategic alliance, aimed at Middle East dominance, but with collateral damage for renewables and efficiency.
For more analysis and comments from NGOs see Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/may/29/shale-gas-fracking-green-carbon
2 Howarth et al: Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations Climatic Change (2011) 106:679–690 www.springerlink.com/content/e384226wr4160653/fulltext.pdf?MUD=MP
5 report for Shell and Conoco and Sasol at www.sydneypeakoil.com/davek/GTL_LCA_Synthesis_Report.pdf
The International Energy Agency
The IEA is the energy arm of the rich countries OECD, and was formed in 1974 in response to the first oil crisis. Its message has always been: less oil, more gas, more coal, more nuclear and to some extent also renewables and efficiency.
The IEA is best known for its annual World Energy Outlooks, in which it tries to look some 20 years ahead. The IEA has made a series of extremely inaccurate forecasts in areas such as oil prices (far too low), nuclear capacity (far too high) and renewables (too low). Not only have they been proved wrong in the long run; they have often been wrong by large factors for just a few years ahead.
Nevertheless, the reports of the agency are treated with reverence by the media and politicians.
The usefulness of the IEA can be questioned, but they do produce a lot of data, and source this well (though the sources are not always peer-reviewed articles). Also, their reports usually give a good picture of how “conventional wisdom” looks at a certain time.