The gas don’t work

“L&M Energy Limited is pleased to announce that it has identified five areas of interest in the South Island of New Zealand that hold significant shale gas potential analogous to some of the most productive shale acreage in the USA.” This statement headed a press release from L&M Energy on Friday. I first heard the news on the radio the next morning. My heart sank at yet another indication that we are determined to extract and use all the fossil fuel deposits we can lay our hands on. The Minister for Economic Development, Gerry Brownlee, on the other hand, no doubt felt buoyed up by the announcement. This is what he wrote in the introduction to the Draft Energy Strategy last year:

“For too long now we have not made the most of the wealth hidden in our hills, under the ground,  and in our oceans. It is a priority of this government to responsibly develop those resources.”

He wasn’t just talking about geothermal energy or tidal power but about coal, lignite, deep sea oil and gas, and methane hydrates. And now he can add possible shale gas to the list.

The temptation to sarcastic comment is strong, but I’ll try to avoid it. Shale gas has been hailed in many countries, especially the US. The quantities in which it may be able to be extracted have led some delirious commenters to speak of a new energy dawn. It’s often described as some kind of green energy, on the grounds that burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal. It’s sometimes referred to as a bridge to the always-coming day when we leave fossil fuels behind. In fact there’s doubt that shale gas is less carbon-intensive than coal. In May 2010 the Council of Scientific Society Presidents wrote to President Obama urging great caution against a national policy of developing shale gas without a better scientific basis for the policy. Later last year the US Environmental Protection Agency concluded that shale gas emits much larger amounts of methane than does conventional gas. A peer-reviewed study by Robert Howarth and colleagues from Cornell University was published in Climate Change Letters in April of this year. This from the announcement of the paper:

“Natural gas has been widely touted as a clean energy source that will help the U.S. transition to renewable energy options while lowering greenhouse gas emissions relative to other fossil fuels. While it is true that end-use combustion of natural gas emits markedly less carbon dioxide (CO2) than other fossil energy sources, methane (CH4) losses during modern gas exploration and development, as well as processing, transmission and distribution may fully negate these CO2 savings. A full accounting of modern gas development indicates that natural gas may actually exacerbate, rather than mitigate, global climate change.”

And more specifically from the paper itself:

“The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”

The touting of natural gas as a bridge to the decarbonised economy is all very well, but the enormous expansion of the resource which shale gas may enable looks less like a bridge than a lingering in the fossil fuel economy which has brought us into the dangerous world we now inhabit. Talk of bridging sounds like greenwash. In New Zealand, as in many other countries, the addition of shale gas to the mining armoury is likely to prove only another step to climate disaster.

22 thoughts on “The gas don’t work”

  1. From theSouthland Times 22.June, “Electricity will not flow from Southland’s newest power source just yet.
    L & M Energy’s coal-seam gas production test site at Ohai was expected to be selling electricity to the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter by the end of this month but it has been delayed …
    …it quickly became clear the well was not working as well as planned.”

    They have had to bring in an over-rig in to fit over the production well to make it easier to pump water into the coal seam (which forces the gas out through a change in pressure).

    A recent Time magazine had an article on the effects of fracking in rural Pennsylvania – the locals were not impressed.

    Has this government ever read the terms of the Kyoto Protocol? Why are they pushing to find and develop fossil fuels instead of investing in research and development of renewable energy? I think every person in the country should be asking that question.

    1. Thanks Dappledwater. I stayed with the CO2 implications for the post but the other associated environmental impacts are horrific, as they are with the Canadian tar sands and the Appalachian mountain mining, let alone deep sea drilling gone wrong. It’s a sad spectacle.

    2. Holy mackeral!!! Yep, that film should be compulsory viewing – first at parliament and then down here in Southland, where they think coal and gas will make the province rich (and having lived in coal-mining communities I laugh my head off at that notion)

  2. Thomas – Definitely.

    Are the National Party worshippers of Sauron? Will they not be content until every last stream, river and lake is polluted? every forest destroyed, every aquifer drained or poisoned?, and the oceans acidified and turned into oxygen-less dead zones?

  3. The problem here is that as natural gas is extracted, transported and distributed some of it leaks into the atmosphere. Each molecule of methane in the atmosphere has far greater climate impact than CO2 over short time periods like 20 or 100 years. What Howarth documents is that leaks have been far greater than anything the oil and gas industry has admitted in the past.

    One thing I discovered when reviewing this issue for articles on the climate impact of natural gas I was writing for The Energy Collective was that the common sense argument that because methane is the product this industry is selling they have an incentive strong enough to cause them to eliminate methane leaks is not true. Industry apologists make this argument, but I’ve also heard it from a climate scientist sufficiently alarmed about climate change he devotes his time to studying geoengineering.

    The Government Accountability Office, the GAO, in the US reviewed oil and gas industry practice in controlling methane emissions and it is a sobering story for those who would like to believe that if a price could be put on CO2 emissions they would be controlled. My conclusion after reading their report and talking to contacts in the GAO is that unless the CEO of the particular oil and gas company involved has set a policy for the company to limit methane emissions, economics in the US drives them to let the gas leak and direct new capital investment into the more profitable direction of finding even more gas.

    See: analysis of the GAO report on methane leaks in the US

    EPA is revising its reference document on methane which was used by the IPCC

    Discussion of Howarth’s preliminary work

    Why BP acts differently in the US than US companies do regarding its methane leaks

    Shale gas is much more radioactive than conventional gas

    1. Thanks for this David. I lived in New Hampshire (US) for a few years. My house had a bore water well. NH is a Granite state with Uranium deposits as part of the base rock. When I bought the house I noted the previous owner had an industrial size water carbon filter installed in the basement (about 1.5 tall). I took out my Geiger counter and approached it. I quickly retreated and had the filter professionally removed. It was very HOT indeed (radioactive) as over the years the radon gas in the water had been collected at the carbon where it decayed via some intermediate steps of short half life times into the longer living Lead 210 isotope, a beta radiator with 23 years half life time. “Ideal” for accumulating a high dose radiation source in your homes water filter over the years….
      I had to install a radon gas wash system blowing air through my water before use to blow the radon out of the house before breathing it in in the shower…
      So I can fully sympathize with the people who will have to deal with radon laden natural gas seeping into their water systems or coming out of their cooking stove….

  4. I think civilization tends to fear radiation far more than is warranted by the facts. Instead of taking reasonable measures to limit our exposure to minimize what risk there may be as we exploit radioactivity and substances that are radioactive for the good we can get out of them, such as enough energy to power civilization as far into the future as we can see now, we fear the tiniest exposure in some cases, such as did Fukushima expose me to anything.

    Meanwhile, we blithely ignore far larger exposures such as using conventional natural gas for instance, which exposes its consumers to an order of magnitude greater radiation than if they used nuclear generated electricity instead. This new shale gas which in the US comes from host rocks 5 to 80 times more radioactive than the rocks conventional gas is found in. And the radiation from medical testing in the US dwarfs any source such as this. Medical testing now exposes the average American to a total radiation dose greater than average natural background and is still rising. Since some studies show as much as 1/3 of these tests are “defensive” medical tests doctors do to protect themselves from the lawyers of their patients, it can be said Americans are glowing in the dark because their doctors are afraid of their lawyers, while they hesitate to get rid of their fossil fuel addiction and go nuclear because they fear radiation if it can be pinned on the nuclear industry, and only that radiation that can be pinned on the nuclear industry.

    It seems insane, what with the dire warnings climate scientists are becoming even more unified about issuing.

    1. As a resident of NZ it would be irrational to be unduly concerned with the problems posed to me by the Fukushima incident.

      If I had been a resident of Fukushima however, I consider that my fears concerning Nuclear power and the possible problems associated with it were perfectly rational. Sadly, recent experience would have validated my fears. The constant reassurances and naysaying by the industry and regulating authorities that such an eventuality were impossible would be cold comfort. My land and the water that surrounds it would now be contaminated and unable to provide me with the food and income that sustained my family.

      I have no fundamental opposition to nuclear power – its relationship to the weapons industry is a socio-political problem not a scientific one. What concerns me and provides sustenance to my fears regarding its widespread implementation is the curtain of reassurance and subsequent secrecy following this and previous events. I am no conspiracy theorist but the number of “arses being covered” in the aftermath was quite patent. ‘Expert opinions’ were regularly quoted and were often subsequently proved invalid if not misleading. Doubtless a press feeding frenzy played a part in this behavior but scientists should be above participating in this.

      Protagonists for nuclear power do themselves no favours by typecasting opposition as Luddite behavior. Having previously administered radiation to patients I was very aware of the problems it presents and the cost/benefit analysis entailed in its use. I was obliged to get the patients informed consent for its use.

      When it comes to NZ I have yet to be convinced of a positive cost/benefit ratio for the implementation of nuclear power generation. This may change. At present it appears an irrelevancy if not a red herring, to beat the AGW activists with – again by labelling them as Luddites unwilling to bow to progress.

      If NZ is to proceed with plans for a Fission based power solution,may I make a couple of suggestions:
      1. The site should be in the centre of a major city – Cornwall Park or the Basin Reserve maybe.
      2. Schools, kindergarten and hospitals should be built around and on top of the reactor.

      If the public can be convinced that this is a good idea then I know my concerns are unfounded.

      Good luck with your endeavours.

  5. On the topic of Fukushima, Australia’s ABC has uncovered that Fukushima’s Tsunami plan was all of 1 (yes, one) page that allowed for waves of no higher than 5.7m, as opposed to the 15m waves that actually hit the plant.

    It’s discoveries like this – along with the revelation of 3 core-meltdowns (that’s 2 more than pages in the plan!) + the initial leak was much larger than was disclosed at the time – that will help to ensure any notion that the nuclear industry will ever revive in the western democracies remains Quixotic. Then there’s the recent revelation that the US has been systematically downgrading safety standards as the plants age! Simply put; who’d want one for a neighbour?

      1. If the British government believes, as it does, that new nuclear build is the only practical way forward for low-carbon baseload electricity to replace the current aging fleet, why should it not reassure people on the safety as it applies in the UK? Do we want people to be nice and terrified instead so that they are unable to think sensibly?

    1. Pardon the belated response, but I’d like an NPP for a neighbor. It’d be far preferable to the 2GW Didcot coal-fired power station I currently live near to in the UK. Lower radiation, no SO2, no toxic fly ash dumped in the nearby shingle pits, no emissions of 16 million tons of CO2 per year.

    2. And, don’t just swallow the hysteria about “downgrading” safety standards.
      What’s actually been happening is that the US NRC has been steadily updating its whole approach to safety, in line with advances in the field. In early years, safety was less of a science and more ad-hoc. Some dangers were worried about in exhaustive detail (e.g. embrittlement has been intensively researched over decades) and others were completely overlooked (e.g. ducting routes for control cables, cf “Browns Ferry”).

      The approach now is based on fault tree analysis (please read) which places prevention effort in proportion to the severity of the failures. This turns out to give the safest overall outcome. But then the armchair experts seize on something like embrittlement which isn’t getting the priority they think it should, not realising that a lot more effort is going into more significant things of which they know nothing. It’s like a plane hitting turbulence and panicky armchair back-seat pilots wanting to grab the controls.

      Of course, there’s a big place for calm explanations from the pilots in all this.

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