21 february 2013

[4C note: The second article below, though nearly two months old, gives an excellent supplementary reason for skepticism about the virtues of natural gas.]

Shale falls short for US energy security

By Bill Richardson, The Financial Times, February 20, 2013

The nation should not give up on renewable sources, says Bill Richardson

Every US president since Richard Nixon has trumpeted the benefits of energy independence and outlined strategies to end fuel imports, including investing in renewables, nuclear, biofuels and coal. But today, with advances in drilling technologies and the recent surge in the development of oil and gas from shale rock, the country is inching closer to the elusive goal. “After years of talking about it,” said President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address, “we are finally poised to control our own energy future.”

But we cannot let the desire for energy independence obscure the fact that there will be shortfalls in the future. Nor should it make us ignore the acceleration of climate change. As US fossil-fuel production reaches unprecedented levels, now is not the time to give up on clean energy ambitions. Indeed, now is the time to try harder to meet them.

However positive the impacts of domestic oil and gas production, such as increased economic growth, job creation and a levelling of the US balance of trade, two facts cannot be overlooked. First, fossil fuels alone cannot sustainably drive long-term US growth; and, second, the burning of hydrocarbons contributes to a hotter, more unstable climate.

A newfound abundance of oil and gas reserves can easily lull the US into a false sense of security. While natural gas provides a relatively clean, inexpensive option – and will play a larger role in our energy mixture – it is still a finite resource.

Furthermore even if, as the International Energy Agency predicts, the US replaces Saudi Arabia as the leading oil producer in the next decade, we cannot drill our way to energy independence. Today, oil and gas supply 65 per cent of US energy. But whether America’s hydrocarbon reserves last 20 or 100 more years, demand for those hydrocarbons will eventually outstrip supply. We must continue to diversify our energy mix unabated.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Middle East is an example of a region looking to a future beyond oil. Recognising that hydrocarbons alone will not meet future energy demands, and the realities of climate change, several countries are diversifying their energy blend with clean renewables.

Take the United Arab Emirates, which has the seventh-largest proven oil reserves. In the middle of the past decade, about the time when exponential population growth coupled with a surging national economy put a tremendous strain on its electricity supply, it began to build a renewables industry from scratch. Today, the UAE is about to launch a 100MW concentrated solar power plant in the Abu Dhabi desert, the largest renewable energy project in the region.

Saudi Arabia, home to one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, is also exploring low-carbon alternatives to diversify its energy sources. It has committed to invest more than $100bn to develop 41,000MW of solar capacity in the next 20 years. That is enough energy to power roughly 30m American homes. And, like the UAE, Saudi Arabia is planning to build several nuclear power facilities to meet the electricity needs of its growing population.

The US is certainly moving in the right direction in building a short-term position of energy independence. However, as Middle Eastern hydrocarbon producers demonstrate, it is shortsighted to measure this purely in terms of barrels produced daily. It should be defined by how long that autonomy will last, and by the economic, social and environmental impacts of the sources used.

The danger, if America does not invest in more diverse and less carbon-intensive energy sources, is that viable technologies such as renewables become an afterthought and leadership in these fields will be seized by other countries. Last year, renewable energy investment in the US was down 32 per cent from 2011. Investor confidence remains shaky, with Congress’s inability to decide on extending federal incentives, such as the wind energy production tax, for the long term adding to industry uncertainty.

With US energy independence within reach, we are nearing a pivotal point. Do we rest on the short-term security provided by new-found oil and gas reserves, thereby delaying investment in long-term security? Or do we put clean energy at the core of energy policy and energy-independence ambitions?

Whether in the US or the Middle East, hydrocarbon-based energy independence cannot be the defining factor in any national energy policy. For these countries, and others like them, a diverse mixture that uses oil and gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future is the only way to maintain independence beyond the life of oil.

The writer is a former US energy secretary, governor of New Mexico and UN ambassador


Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit

By Joe Romm on Think Progress, Jan 2, 2013

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have reconfirmed earlier findings of high rates of methane leakage from natural gas fields. If these findings are replicated elsewhere, they would utterly vitiate the climate benefit of natural gas, even when used to switch off coal.

Indeed, if the previous findings — of 4% methane leakage over a Colorado gas field — were a bombshell, then the new measurements reported by the journal Nature are thermonuclear:

… the research team reported new Colorado data that support the earlier work, as well as preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production. That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado.

The Uinta Basin is of particular interest because fracking has increased there over the past decade.

How much methane leaks during the entire lifecycle of unconventional gas has emerged as a key question in the fracking debate. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4). And methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than (CO2), which is released when any hydrocarbon, like natural gas, is burned — 25 times more potent over a century and 72 to 100 times more potent over a 20-year period.

Even without a high-leakage rate for shale gas, we know that “Absent a Serious Price for Global Warming Pollution, Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere.” That was first demonstrated by the International Energy Agency in its big June 2011 report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change. That study — which had both coal and oil consumption peaking in 2020 — made abundantly clear that if we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels.

A March 2012 study by climatologist Ken Caldeira and tech guru Nathan Myhrvold came to a similar conclusion using different methodology (see “You Can’t Slow Projected Warming With Gas, You Need ‘Rapid and Massive Deployment’ of Zero-Carbon Power“). They found that even if you could switch entirely over to natural gas in four decades, you “won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.” And that was using conventional (i.e. low) leakage rates.

But the leakage rate does matter. A major 2011 study by Tom Wigley of the Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) concluded:

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

Wigley, it should be noted, was looking at the combined warming impact from three factors — from the methane leakage, from the gas plant CO2 emissions, and from the drop in sulfate aerosols caused by switching out coal for gas. In a country like the United States, which strongly regulates sulfate aerosols, that third factor is probably much smaller. Of course, in countries like China and India, it would be a big deal.

An April 2012 study found that a big switch from coal to gas would only reduce “technology warming potentials” by about 25% over the first three decades — far different than the typical statement that you get a 50% drop in CO2 emissions from the switch. And that assumed a total methane leakage of 2.4% (using EPA’s latest estimate). The study found that if the total leakage exceeds 3.2% “gas becomes worse for the climate than coal for at least some period of time.”

Leakage of 4%, let alone 9%, would call into question the value of unconventional gas as any sort of bridge fuel. Colm Sweeney, the head of the aircraft program at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, who led the study’s aerial component, told Nature:

“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see.”

The industry has tended kept most of the data secret while downplaying the leakage issue. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is working with the industry to develop credible leakage numbers in a variety of locations.

The earlier NOAA findings were called into question by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations. The NOAA researchers “have a defence of the Colorado study in press,” Nature notes.

Right now, fracking would seem to be a bridge to nowhere.

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