A Fracking Mess It Is

By May 30, 2012 November 14th, 2012 Methane
International Energy Agency (IEA) Says Oil Shall Fracking May Kill Alternatives: The Bad News Is That Natural Gas Production Produces Greater Warming than Coal

The International Energy Association (IEA) in their new report “Golden Rules for the Golden Age of Gas” says cheap natural gas from fracking oil shale may kill the budding alternative energy business that is relying on costs to beat coal. The drop in natural gas prices is already causing coal plants to shut down temporarily to compete. When all is said and done, there may be enough natural gas, and oil in tar sands, to power the U.S. for 100 years. Hydraulic fracturing could triple North American production to 1.6 trillion cubic meters by 2035.

This is not a report supporting the fracking oil and gas industry, this report is a warning. The International Energy Association (IEA) says that if the fossil fuel kings do not dot their i’s and cross their t’s, the public is going to kick their butts and may very well shut down the industry. They argue the extreme importance of transparency and thoughtful decision making. But the oil and gas industry is wicked bad. What we have to look forward to is likely gas, gas, polluted groundwater and more gas.

We know tar sands are bad too, but what’s so bad about swapping coal for natural gas? (Discounting the polluted groundwater of course.) Doesn’t natural gas emit 30 percent less CO2 than oil and 45 percent less CO2 than coal? Yes it does. It’s not burning natural gas that worries most scientists, but leakage of natural gas from the fracking operation.

The IEA says normal natural gas production results in about 3.7 percent leakage worldwide. The EPA says in the U.S. it is 1.6 to 3.1%. Alvarez et al., in the latest work on the subject in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 12 gives this number as 3 percent in the U.S. Alvarez and his colleagues work shows that; “new natural gas power plants produce net climate benefits relative to efficient, new coal plants using lowgassy coal on all time frames as long as leakage in the natural gas system is less than 3.2%.” The gap between benefits of using gas and not using gas are slim. But this is using simple greenhouse gas calculations for the amount of warming that the gas is responsible for alone. A number of different things affect this relationship and none of them are good.

Gas loss from fracking pushes way beyond the 3.2 percent threshold point to 7.9 percent. Because of the nature of fracking, where we use extreme pressure on enormously large geologic shale formations to produce “fracture zones” within the formation to get the natural gas to flow, sometimes things get out of hand.

But counterintuitively, none of the 7.9 percent leakage from shale gas is from leakage in the geologic formation. So what does this mean?  To start with it means that when gas leakage gets beyond 3.2 percent, the benefit from burning natural gas vs. coal is gone. The extra warming from that leaked natural gas–methane, a powerful greenhouse gas itself–counteracts the benefit that burning the natural gas–methane–has created. Less CO2 is released from natural gas than oil or coal and therefore less warming happens from the carbon dioxide released from burning natural gas vs. the other fossil fuels. But now we have crossed the threshold with fracked natural gas.

Alvarez tells us that in 2009, more unconventional gas was produced than conventional gas. Sixteen percent of that unconventional gas was shale gas (there are more different types of unconventional gas other than shale gas). In 2035 this is expected to increase to 45 percent. The 7.9 percent leakage from shale gas is more accurately called fugitive emissions. These fugitive emissions come from many places. The amount of gas that escapes from a shale gas well when it is completed is 1,900 times more than from a traditional natural gas well. conservatively, 1.9 percent of the lifetime production from the well is released during this well completion process. Conventional natural gas does not use these fracking processes and only 0.01 percent of the total gas production of conventional wells escapes due to fugitive emissions.

Well completion emissions for shale gas include flowback of the water used to fracture the formation, which has become saturated with natural gas that is released as it returns to the surface. Routine venting and equipment leaks create 0.3 to 1.9 percent of fugitive emissions from the 55 to 150 connections per well for things like heaters, meters, dehydrators, compressors, and vapor-recovery apparatus before the gas enters the collection pipeline. Pressure relief valves are design to release a certain amount of natural gas as a normal part of their function. there are still a lot of pneumatically operated valves out there (there are a lot of these in gas production where you do not want electric sparks from electrical switches.) Up to 0.26 percent escapes  because of a process called unloading. Up to 0.19 percent escapes because of processing (things like removing sulfur or excess CO2). Storage and conveyance leakage has been estimated as high as 10 percent, but this study uses 1.4 to 3.6 percent.

All total, Alvarez says 7.9 percent of total production leaks into our atmosphere. This is far more than the threshold where natural gas is responsible for less warming than coal. So how much worse than coal is natural gas?

That extra 4.7 percent of the 7.9 percent leakage from fracking causes warming, and lots of it. We have all heard that natural gas (methane) as a greenhouse gas is 21 (2001 IPCC) or 25 times (2007 IPCC) more potent than methane. The latest work (2009) shows methane is 33 times more powerful than CO2. Later knowledge has shown more refinements and a larger rate of heating than earlier knowledge.  But, this is also the grade-school explanation. It represents what is called radiative forcing. Sound like the greenhouse effect? It is. It’s the amount of heating caused directly by the greenhouse gas.

But this is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. This paper from Science in October 2009 has much more news. In the short term, because methane is a short lived gas relative to CO2, methane has an even higher rate of heating than CO2. More than 3 times more or 105 times more. Why? Part of this phenomenon is because methane creates chain reactions in our atmosphere when it degrades. One of these reaction creates ozone that itself is a greenhouse gas. These reactions are known as indirect effects. The big reason that methane is so much more powerful than CO2 in the 20 twenty year time frame  is previously, we have based our evaluation of heating potential of different greenhouse gases on 100 years. Because methane decomposes on average in 12 years, in the 100 year comparison it only warms for twelve years, then does nothing for 88 years. So if we are comparing twenty years, methane warms for twelve and then does nothing for 8 years, not 88 years. So the “relative” warming is much greater.

So why 20 years instead of 100 like normal? Two reasons, tipping points and the difficulty of returning out climate to normal. the longer we wait to begin reducing emissions, the harder it will be to reduce them enough to matter. It’s already getting to the point where it may not matter any longer and only massive reduction of our atmospheric load of CO2 or some dangerous geoengineering scheme with mirrors and jet’s spewing iodine and sulfur in the stratosphere will do the job.

The threshold for dangerous climate change keeps dropping. The latest drop is down to 300 ppm CO2. The latest evaluation of how much change would create danger is now down to 1 degree C. Our emissions for 2010 (the latest year available) are following the worst-case scenario, or are worse than the worst-case scenario. Last year our global emissions rate tripled the average rate of the last 20 years to 6 percent–the highest it’s been since 1970. Even, during the economic dysfunction just passed, or still ongoing depending upon whether or not you have a job..

And this is on top of the enormous accumulation in the last 20 or 22 years. Remember 1990? Climate scientists suggested, through the Kyoto protocol, that we should reduce our emission somewhere below 1990 levels by 2012. Fat chance. Our emissions have increased 49 percent since 1990. Globally between 1990 and 2010, we emitted 54 percent more greenhouse gases than the previous 20 years. Twenty years before that? Global emissions were one-fifth of what they are today.

Now for the bad news. Beyond this exponentially growing cancer of greenhouse gas accumulations, we have known for some time that our planet’s climate exhibits bifurcation points. Big word for a scary deal. Think tipping point, threshold, cascading failure, population explosion, irreversible dangerous climate change: any of the above will do. We hardly know what causes these things, have no idea how to project or forecast them and know that they happen regularly, or even quite often in geologic time frames. We know that our climate can change 9 to 11 degrees F average globally in as little of a couple of years. The last time it happened was about 10,000 years ago. When we were leaving the last ice age. But they have also happened when the average temperature was three or four degrees warmer even than today and resulted in one of the top five mass extinction events that we know of (the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum).

So our job is already half again more difficult than it was in 1990 and now emissions are increasing faster than anytime in the last forty years. But these tipping points are what worries our climate specialists. In the last forty years our climate has warmed about 1.2 degrees F and climate extremes are now happening 10 to 100 times more frequently because of it. In another 20 things will be bad enough. Across the interior of North America there will be continuous Dust Bowl Drought brought on by just 2.5 to 3.5 more degrees F or warming. But if we travel through a climate threshold, we might see three or four times more warming. and listen to this: the biggest abrupt climate changes that we can see in the past, and we can see several hundred over the last three or five million years, have all been caused by climate forcings that pale in comparison to what we are doing to Earth’s atmosphere today. 

We are changing the CO2 concentration 14,000 times faster than anything know for certain in the last 610,000 years and likely anything in the last 65 million years, since the giant asteroid hit the Yucatan Peninsula and the dinosaurs went extinct

Now we’ve got this fracking mess going on.

And I’m not finished yet. Another paper by Nadine Unger and an all-star cast from NASA, Columbia, University of Illinois, Environmental Defense and Berkeley published a paper in 2010 in PNAS that spins the entire world of climate change on its head. What this paper says is that different economic sectors rely on different fuels, or have different characteristics that create different amounts of air pollution. Some of these pollutants warm the planet like the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and black soot, and some of them cool, like SOx, and NOx (sulfates and nitrates) and the indirect effects of aerosols or (AIE). It is this complicated sounding AIE in combination with SOx and NOx cooling the atmosphere that is so important

These “cooling” pollutants generally shade the planet or reflect the sun’s energy back into space without it warming the surface. We know these things as smog, or more recently a global cooling phenomenon in the Far East known as the “Asian Brown Cloud.”  What Unger’s team, did was to evaluate all of the pollutants from different economic sectors like energy, transportation, industry, agriculture, etc. Then for each sector they subtracted the cooling of the cooling pollutants from the warming of the greenhouse gases and came up with a “net” warming (or cooling) for each sector. They did the math for the short-term (20-year) and long-term (2100) scenarios.

What they found is completely different from everything we have been practicing with our endeavors to fix climate change. Coal is no longer the key greenhouse gas contributor in time frames that matter. The transportation sector, because it burns oil (or gasoline or diesel almost exclusively), which burns a lot more cleanly than the predominant energy sources in the energy sector–coal–is responsible for 2.5 times more (two and a half times more) warming than the coal burning energy sector in the short term. It’s not called dirty coal without reason.

Of all of those dirty pollutants that come out of coal, so many of them are cooling pollutants that in the short term, burning coal hardly warms the planet at all. But the cooling pollutants are all short-lived. So by the time we get out to thirty or forty years from now, the CO2 starts to take over the warming curve again, very similarly to the difference between CO2 and methane. This is the time frame that matters. After 2040, these researchers tell us that the short-term effects of the aerosols are beat out by CO2s long life. These principles are exactly like the principles that dictate the difference in warming between methane and carbon dioxide in different time frames. The long-term time frames is of course still important, but it’s the short-term that is critical now.

It’s hard to imagine that transportation creates 2.5 times more warming than coal simply because we have understood that coal is the king of greenhouse gases for decades. But up until recently, we did not know enough about aerosols (SOx and NOx etc.) to be able to make the calculations. Now we do. And the calcs turn out to be quite unsettling.

Is coal still the bad boy? In the 100 year time frame coal is still the biggest warmer, but because of the cooling effects of aerosols and how dirty coal burns compared to how clean gasoline and diesel fuel burn in the transportation sector, in the short-climate-term (2040), transportation creates 2.5 times more warming than coal. Now here’s the heavy: methane–natural gas–burns the cleanest of all. How many cooling pollutants are created when methane is burned?  Not many. We can basically say, without anyone having done the math, in the short-climate-term, that methane is responsible for at least as much warming as the transportation industry that burns gasoline and diesel, and likely a lot more.

O.K. now, try and keep up: Because burning natural gas emits 30 percent less CO2 than oil and 45 percent less CO2 than coal, and natural gas is 105 times more potent than CO2 in the time frames that matter and oil is responsible for 2.5 time more warming than coal, 1 x (1-0.30) x 105 x 2.5 = Natural gas is responsible for 183 times more warming than coal in short-climate-time frames.



Shale gas: Alvarez at al., Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure, PNAS April 12, 2012.
Howarth et al., Methane and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations, Climatic Change, 106, 4, 2011.

CO2 is changing 14,000 times faster than the long-term average for the last 610,000 thousand years … Zeebe, Richard E., and Ken Caldeira. Close mass balance of long-term carbon fluxes from ice-core CO2 and ocean chemistry records. Nature Geoscience, Advance Online Publication, April 27, 2008. Press Release: http://www.hawaii.edu/news/article.php?aId=2272

Extremes are happening 10 to 100 times more frequently: Hansen, Sato and Ruedy, Public Perception of Climate Change and the New Climate Dice, (in-press) PNAS, 2012. http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1204/1204.1286.pdf

Continuous drought, as bad as the Dust Bowl, in 20 years, three to four times worse in fifty years: Dia, Characteristics and trends in various forms of the Palmer Drought Severity Index 1900 to 2008, Journal of Geophysical research, March 16, 2011, revised. 
Press Release: http://www2.ucar.edu/news/2904/climate-change-drought-may-threaten-much-globe-within-decades
Full article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.81/abstract

Transportation responsible for 2.5 times more warming than coal: Unger, et. al., Attribution of climate forcing to economic sectors, PNAS, December 2009.

Methane 33 times more potent than CO2,  105 times more potent in the short term: Shindell, et. al., Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions, Nature, October 2009.