Nick Smith: another fossil fuel fail

MP Nick Smith in a NZ Herald opinion piece this week uses the fracking debate to advance the cause of fossil fuel mining. He claims that fracking is important in the development of geothermal energy and then moves seamlessly to the notion that we are desperately in need of unconventional natural gas in order to save us from falling back on coal, which we will otherwise “inevitably burn”. In defending fracking he manages to nicely couple the fossil fuel natural gas with a renewable energy source, geothermal.

It’s not my purpose to argue here about fracking as a technology. What is dismaying about Smith’s article is the complacency with which he advances the cause of natural gas. Writing enthusiastically of the huge unconventional shale gas resources in the US, he claims gas emits one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. I know its emissions are lower, but it was news to me that they were as low as that. I could find no source to substantiate that figure. A little over half is the best figure I have been able to locate, and there are big questions about methane leakage in the fracking process. However let that pass. The real issue is the unrestrained pursuit of unconventional fossil fuels, which as James Hansen has reminded us often enough will mean game over for the climate.

The argument that natural gas is better than coal from a climate change perspective is increasingly made. It is true enough. But it does not mean that natural gas is somehow benign in relation to global warming. I’ve written on this question before and I repeat here a quote I used then from Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA:

“While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

Nick Smith’s urgent advocacy of fracking for natural gas, albeit hedged by some precautions, completely ignores the challenge to replace the use of all fossil fuels with renewable or nuclear energy. It appears to be either natural gas or coal in his book, and he works up a lather of indignation about how opposition to fracking “halts the development of industries offering significant economic and environmental benefits” to the country.

There may or may not be immediate environmental concerns about the process of fracking. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is undertaking an enquiry and will report by the end of the year. But the overarching environmental concern is much greater than the fracking technology. That concern is the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a matter which Smith addresses only to the extent of hurriedly claiming the superiority of natural gas over coal. If that is as far as Government thinking goes, it is nowhere near far enough.

Smith in his final paragraph, in the context of an assertion that he is passionate about New Zealand’s natural environment, urges the need for “a rational and science-based approach to our natural resources and risk management”. Is there anything more rational and science-based than the warnings of climate scientists that we are putting humanity in grave danger by continuing to explore and exploit fossil fuels? Certainly we can’t make the transition to other fuels overnight. But it would be good to see a politician of Smith’s background saving his insistent advocacy for the necessary goal of developing energy sources that do not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The Government’s preference for short term issues is a sad avoidance of responsibility.

51 thoughts on “Nick Smith: another fossil fuel fail”

  1. Great post, Bryan.
    So now we know what the hon Dr Nick Smith has been doing since being forced to resign from being the Minister for climate change issues – greenwashing for unconventional fossil fuel extraction and the inevitable carbon dioxide emissions. Oh, my mistake, thats what he did as the Minister!

    Smith’s argument is “If not gas, then coal!”.
    This is a fallacy.
    It’s an example of the false dilemma fallacy, when only two options are given, when there are more (such as renewable energy, energy conservation, decarbonising the economy etc.)
    It’s also an example of the Not as bad as fallacy, which is itself a subset of the moral equivalence fallacy.

  2. Baroness Bryony Worthington, one of the main architects of the UK’s climate change act, has come out in favour of shale gas as a “bridging technology” looking to a longer term solution using Thorium and other energy solutions.

    Incidentally, one of the 2 co-authors of that paper was Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft.

    1. There’s nothing in what Nick Smith wrote to suggest that he is advancing natural gas as a bridge to anywhere in particular. If he showed signs of thinking ahead in some sort of strategic fashion I might be a little more respectful, but his advocacy is limited to the claim that natural gas is better than coal and his main anxiety appears to be that that New Zealand should not miss out on the economic opportunity it offers. Where is the anxiety abojut climate change, or the urgency to move away from fossil fuels altogether? Not too much to expect from a former climate change Minister, surely.

      1. From the FT:
        “Shale gas boom helps slash US emissions”

        The shale gas boom has led to a big drop in US carbon emissions, as generators switch from coal to cheap gas.

        According to the International Energy Agency, US energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have fallen 450m tonnes over the past five years – the largest drop among all countries surveyed.

        Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist, attributed the fall to improvements in fuel efficiency in the transport sector and a “major shift” from coal to gas in the power sector. “This is a success story based on a combination of policy and technology – policy driving greater efficiency and technology making shale gas production viable,” Mr Birol told the Financial Times.

        1. Fracking has been fingered as causing a lot more Methane leaks than previously thought and taking that into account the GW potential of a massive increase in fracking for gas with a much higher ratio of leaking rigs, pipelines, storage etc. to gas production than with conventional gas wells may be at par or perhaps worse than burning coal. It could well be that the fracking mania causes just one thing: the fatal illusion that we can delay the retooling of society to non-fossile fuels for a few decades longer…. and that would be tragic.

        2. Hmm, last 5 years… So nothing else happened in that time that might better explain the drop in US carbon emissions, say like a certain global economic meltdown?

            1. The screenshot I took last night from em6Live

              shows that gas is a fairly large part of NZ’s energy mix
              (Gas in light blue on the left hand histogram)

              This gas has to be sourced from somewhere.

            2. Like all other fossil fuels or any mined energy ‘That Gas’ will run out one day, fracking or not, besides the exhaust changing our climate.
              The real question therefore is: When is the best time to vigorously search for non-mining energy alternatives?
              My suggestion is: Now!
              There is no better time to invest into a new deal than now, when we still at least have the luxury of some positive inertia in our economic systems to carry us into the age of sustainable living.

  3. I live in the centre of a block of Southland land being opened up for oil and gas exploration. We had an interesting public meeting about this in our town on Tuesday evening – attended by a scientist from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Obsfucation. After a geol 101 lecture about the formation of fossil fuels and why there might be deposits in our district the floor was opened for questions. The three main concerns of locals were a) no permission needs to be sought for exploration to take place on their land by whoever wins the tender, b) the amount of water that could be used – water is short down here and c) climate change.

    We came away feeling the government is determined to find and exploit fossil fuels no matter what. It was excruitiating watching a fellow geologist squrim, but, personally, I was embarrassed by his lack of honesty.
    the audience was not the bunch of yokels I think he was expecting, and people were firm in wanting straight answers – which on the whole, we didn’t get.

    We were also given the party line, that natural gas has lower carbon emissions than coal – and he said pretty much the same as Nick Smith. When challenged that methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide, although shorter-lived in the atmosphere, he said, “But we won’t be venting it to the air, it will go through a thermal process.” “Oh”, said I, “You will be burning it?” He turned very pale!

    1. The problem is that if you reject all fossil fuels and nuclear too, then you soon run out of options as we saw last week when UK wind output dropped to 0% of the grid.

      1. What do you propose is to be done, Andy Scrase?

        All we ever hear from you, ad nausea, is your opposition to curbs on the use fossil fuel and your opposition to the development and use of renewables.

        So, what do you propose is to be done, Andy Scrase?

        1. What I intend to do about it, Richard Christie. is to support alternative viable energy solutions like shale gas and thorium,
          I put a small amount of money intoa couple of movies about Thorium and Shale to get some balanced views on these topics.
          What I also intend to do is take every opportunity that I have to demonstrate to the world how useless wind energy is. For example, Richard Christie, I took a screenshot last week showing wind at 0.0% of the grid, which then made it into Booker’s Sunday Telegraph article about the uselessness of wind

          I hope that answers some of your questions. Richard Christie. If you have any further questions, you can email me using the contact details you posted on this blog without my permission..


          1. What, these details?

            At least you’re using your real name now, is that due to your past blunder of posting your real name instead of one of your multiple sock-puppets?

            You used several on that page alone.

            I’ve only put one question so far , and as you were courteous enough to answer it, we shall see where your answer leads

            Here are some further questions

            Is it fair to assume that you are arguing the fossil fuel shale gas and thorium are the only “alternative viable energy solutions” worth pursuing to the energy shortfalls that will result from the running down of the planet’s finite oil reserves?

            Do you think they will be sufficient to satisfy the world’s future energy needs?

            Can you let us in on your discovery of an infinite supply of shale gas?

            What benefit do you see is there in effectively exhausting the world’s reserves of oil within the next 100 years?

            1. Christie,if you are looking for an infinite supply of energy, then we don’t have that right now.
              There are 10 thousand years of known reserves of Thorium.

              If you are anti fossil fuels, then I suggest you stop using energy altogether as it takes quite a bit to make the windmills that produce 0% of the grid.

              If you have further questions, you can contact me on the URL above. I would be delighted to hear from you chrisie.

            2. Behold indeed Richard. AndyS should perhaps tell the Germans that their 10% of electricity generated by Wind and their 5% of electricity generated by Solar (both growing) are useless…. I calculated for Andy the length of the coal train that was replaced by Wind (and even longer when adding solar) in Germany alone, year after year.
              What Andy simply can not comprehend is that the usefulness of Wind and Solar in the total energy produced (and thus coal or gas avoided) over the course of the year, not the fact that there are windless days or times of low sunshine.
              The AGW problem is a sum of emissions problem. Wind and Solar dig way at that problem in a very significant manner. Global wind energy production is rising sharply and especially also China is becoming the worlds fastest installer of new wind capacity.
              Perhaps we should rephrase the old adage: “A fool and reality are easily parted…”

            3. Thomas, the figure of 0% that I quoted was from my own screenshot ftom the NETA site here

              I then forwarded this onto a friend on Facebook who published it on a blog here

              Based on this, Booker wrote a piece here

              Booker acknowledged my input on Bishop Hill here

              One screen shot, a lot of mileage.

              Of course, if this were a one-off, we could excuse it. Many subsequent posts at BH have been describing how wind and solar is destabilising the grid in Germany, emits more CO2 than gas, etc, and has had many days when the 3000+ turbines output is close to zero in the UK.

              I have also looked at the EM6Live site for NZ and I can see no evidence that wind has generated more power than coal in NZ, Thomas, which you previously claimed. (in fact wind output for NZ when I just checked looked like zero at 3am today)

            4. Bishops Hill AND Christopher Booker! Oh you must be so proud to have had your cherry picking endorsed by these clowns who equate wind turbine capacity factor with ‘efficiency’.
              Furthermore, a science writer of the caliber of Christopher Booker, proponent of ‘asbestos is chemically equivalent to talcum powder’ (endorsing the lobbying of a huckster without looking to see if the institute he claimed to be from was fake – classy journo!), global warming is a scam, and intelligent design for good measure.
              Yes that Christopher Booker endorses your cherry picking.
              You however have a good maths education and so should understand that it is just cherry picking, is not even a measure of wind power contribution, is leapt upon by these poorly informed commentators because of their ravenous hunger to find any technical case against wind (poor starving creatures).
              Did you find this fulfilling?

            5. Beaker – Yes I find it extremely fulfilling

              Every opportunity I have to look at a weather map, see a big high and click on NETA to see ZERO energy output from the UK grid, I find incredibly exciting and fulfilling.

              It excites me beaker, because I see cause and effect in action, just as when post one of these comments to this blog, I get one of your dog whistle responses

              Cause and effect Beaker, cause and effect

            6. AndyS, once again your are sputtering nonsense. Anybody can take a screen shot of a power plant (coal, nuclear, wind or otherwise) at a time when its not working. How stupid.

              Germany in the first half of 2012 produced 25% of its electricity by renewable energy means!!! That is up from what I had previously known in a country of 80 million. This includes Wind (majority), Solar and Bio-Mass plants and a bit of hydro. In the first half of 2012 the distribution of renewables (of Germany’s total electricity generation) was: Wind 9.2%, Solar 5.5%, Biomass 5.7%, Hydro 4%, Waste Incineration 0.9% for a total of 67.9 Billion kWh of energy produced.


              Germany is aiming for 35% renewables by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

              You claim that this “destabilizes the grid” is new to me.

              Calculate the length of the train of coal again that this renewable power replaced. You have the raw data from way back when I did this for you already.

              Is there a day when all the windmills in Germany stood still in 2012? Perhaps but unlikely. Does it matter? No!
              What counts is the very significant change in the countries energy production and its great placement for improving on this in the future. No quibbling of yourself or other naysayers will change the facts of these figures.

            7. Thomas August 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm

              AndyS, once again your are sputtering nonsense. Anybody can take a screen shot of a power plant (coal, nuclear, wind or otherwise) at a time when its not working. How stupid

              I wasn’t taking a screenshot of a power plant. I was taking a screenshot of the entire UK wind fleet not working.

              Why is this stupid? The UK policy is to massively increase renewables. Why base your economy on something that completely shuts down across the entire country ?

            1. Apologies for my potted history of British Gas below, simultaneous with your off topic reminder.
              Can I just point out that when andyS writes ‘entire UK wind fleet’, what he actually means is only the largest windfarms connected to the very high voltage grid and not the majority of British windfarms on 33 or 66kV district networks. I would hate to deprive him of the excitement he claims to get from being corrected!

      1. Thomas,whenever I present one of my “threadbare” arguments based on raw data that I have sourced myself, data that contradicts your PR style of activism, you just ignore it.

        You must be a great science teacher

        1. Dear AndyS,

          your raw data gathering unit must be faulty. Try to get it fixed on warranty…

          1) When have I ever ignored you when you present your point of view? I think the history of your posts and my replies tells a different story!

          2) When you source data by yourself I look into it as you would have noted, but in most cases have found that you look at your data and at your method of gathering them from a very specific predetermined perspective, aka you want to prove that wind energy is not working (you told us so much lately here yourself). So you gloat about days when the poor UK grid received nothing from wind for example. I however look at what wind energy has accomplished and is accomplishing on a long term basis. I look at annual statistics and national statistics. Then I calculate how long a train of coal their use has replaced (I was astonished myself how long it was). I translate data into tangible numbers for my students, that is what science teachers do. And I find concurrence with personal analysis of say the wind energy issue and the line of thinking of those who build, install and operate these. I simply find your data you sourced yourself to be mostly invalid momentary cherry picked snapshots suiting an agenda of yours. But scientist dismisses these sort of snap shot hearsay arguments as invalid. And for a good reason.

          With wind and solar I am deeply convinced that your view is dogmatic, flawed and unsupported by the evidence. Not because I ignored you but because I actually put significant time in analyzing these matters and have done so for a long time, as I should, especially as a science teacher.

          If you do make a valid point in your posts, I will gladly acknowledge it when it happens.



  4. I have had a wee search for where Dr Smith gets the “Gas emits one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of coal.”

    So far, not even Exxon say one-third. They say “..natural gas produces up to 60% fewer CO2 emissions than coal.” So thats expressed in CO2, where Smith said GHGs.

    In 1999, the EPA calculated that average CO2 emission rates in the USA from coal-fired power generation were; 2.1 pounds (0.95 kg) carbon dioxide for each KWh; and for natural gas fired power generation were; 1.3 pounds (0.60 kg) carbon dioxide for each KWh.

    The only other person saying one third is Richard Muller.

    1. Mr. February, I found an interesting paper co-authored by Nathan Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures (Microsoft Co-Founder) and Carnegie Institution’s Ken Caldeira to calculate the expected climate effects of replacing the world’s supply of electricity from coal plants with any of eight cleaner options, including GAS.

      A good review of the 2012 paper is here

      From the papers authors:

      Despite the lengthy time lags involved, delaying rollouts of low-carbon-emission energy technologies risks even greater environmental harm in the second half of this century and beyond. This underscores the urgency in developing realistic plans for the rapid deployment of the lowest-GHG-emission electricity generation technologies.
      Technologies that offer only modest reductions in emissions, such as natural gas and — if the highest estimates from the life-cycle analyses are correct — carbon capture and storage, cannot yield substantial temperature reductions this century.

  5. Prof Bob Howarth at Cornell University finds that
    A 20-year perspective, identifies methane emissions from unnatural gas could make it a more greenhouse intensive source of fossil energy than coal.

    Decadal scale is critical, given the urgent need to avoid climate-system tipping points. Methane emissions vent as the backflow enters the impoundment or vessels.

    Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al. Robert W. Howarth & Renee Santoro & Anthony Ingraffea. Climatic Change (2012) 113:537–549 DOI 10.1007/s10584-012-0401-0

    Note that the fracking operation appears to be financed by the higher returns from oil, and the gas is the by product. However, the EROI for shale oil is very low, meaning that the economics are not very sound.

    If anybody is interested, I have put together a slide show which can be found here…..

      1. All Mann said is that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the US seeing a falling trend in CO2 emissions currently and links that to the coal to shale conversion. But that is only the CO2 part of things, not the Methane matter!! How you mold that into “furiously tweeting in favor of shale gas” is hard to fathom. See why people don’t take your very own data digging seriously?
        However the global CO2 emissions and their trend are a very different matter as you know….

  6. Bill – watched your video about the UK grid. First thing I noticed is that, like many energy videos circulating on the internet, it’s sponsored by a fossil fuel company – in this case, British Gas. This isn’t surprising if you look at the generation figures shown; if gas is putting out twenty Gigawatts and wind 0.3 Gigawatts, every few days when wind roars up to four Gig you just dial the gas tap down a little and wait; your market is safe. If you’d built four Gig of nuclear power instead, that would be a permanent hole in your market share – nuclear’s 90% percent plus capacity factor, with the down periods usually determined months in advance, and staggered between plants, versus wind’s 30% capacity factor, pretty much random, and often with much of the country becalmed or windy at the same time. A Gig worth of electric car charging by 2020? Sure, there’ll still be calm nights when the gas has to do the work. Fess up, Beaker, you’re a gas salesman

  7. You can not be blamed for not knowing or understanding this, particularly if you don’t live in the UK, but it is a long time since British Gas was a national gas transmission and supply monopoly. British Gas is now a trading name for Centrica, one of the so called big six gas and electricity retailers. The gas transmission company (owning and running the pipes) was hived off as Transco (part of the fallout of the privatised monopoly of BG facing insolvency after toying with the gas futures market and having to be bailed out by the state) now part of National Grid (for most of Britain) the high voltage grid owner that is not allowed to own any generators on this grid. Still with me.
    Now Centrica (British Gas) is a consortium partner with EDF to build new nuclear power stations in the UK. The other consortia have dropped out so British Gas is one of the two power suppliers still planning to build nuclear. The also do some onshore wind and are the UKs leading offshore wind developer.
    So, the British Gas you highlight as the sponsor of those youtube films is not the type of fossil fuel company that you insinuate, their own description of “Our upstream oil and gas business is focussed on developing mature and orphaned fields on the UK and Norwegian continental shelves.” leaves them a long way from the likes of Shell, BP or Statoil. Still there?
    “… versus wind’s 30% capacity factor, pretty much random…” not what the National Grid man, who likely knows what he was talking about, says on the film.
    Me a gas salesman? No. A British Gas Customer (Gas and Electric) yes, but I have no affection for them or any of the other big six.
    Wind helping gas, no. Every MWh of wind power (and nuclear power) going into the grid is a loss of income for the higher marginal cost fossil fuel generators, thats one reason why we ‘subsidise’ new renewable development, and that even with the ‘subsidy’ most of the big six fall well below their obligation each year (apparently the Daily Mail and Telegraph ‘massive subsidies’ don’t appear quite so massive to the notoriously profit hungry big six, Blimy!).
    Sorry for such a long response, I just did not want to say ‘you are talking rubbish’ without providing context.

  8. Meanwhile over in the heartland of denial the convention of the GOP (Grumpy Old Patriarchs – and their obedient wives and daughters) are gathering for their big day out (Convention). With gusto they planned it to be in the heartland of AGW effects coming home to roost, in Tampa Florida (you know, sea level rise, adverse weather….) only to be greeted by an appropriate messenger: Isaac…
    ..its been called a “threat to the GOP convention” by CNN. Now how ironic is THAT!

      1. No, its not at all organic fracking. The Guar Bean product is one component in an otherwise toxic and certainly not organic brew, much of which thanks to the US legislation does not need to be disclosed by the fracking operators while they at the same time are exempt from any consequences their stuff does to the ground water…. go figure…
        Plus unlike bio-fuels it is a means to the end of adding further large quantities of inorganic fossil carbon to the atmosphere…. so no Andy, this does not even come close to compare to bio-fuels.

Leave a Reply