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Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated

Posted on Jan 25, 2011

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

(Page 3)

That doesn’t mean the program isn’t working—it is. It simply means that the road to making reductions significant enough to affect the rate of climate change is much longer than expected.

The EPA now reports that emissions from conventional hydraulic fracturing are 35 times higher than the agency had previously estimated. It also reports that emissions from the type of hydraulic fracturing being used in the nation’s bountiful new shale gas reserves, such as the Marcellus, are almost 9,000 times higher than it had previously calculated, a figure that begins to correspond with Howarth’s research at Cornell.


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Clean Enough to Count On?

Getting a solid estimate of the total life cycle emissions from natural gas is critical not only to President Obama’s­­—and Congress’–decisions about the nation’s energy and climate strategy, but also to future planning for the nation’s utilities.

Even small changes in the life cycle emissions figures for gas would eventually affect policy and incentives for the utility industry, and ultimately make a big difference in how gas stacks up against its alternatives.

Rogers, the Duke executive, says the country’s large promised reserves of natural gas must also hold up for gas to prove beneficial, in terms of both cost and climate. If domestic reserves turn out to be smaller than predicted, or the nation runs out of gas and turns to liquefied gas imported from overseas, then the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas would be almost equal to coal, Jaramillo pointed out in her 2007 life cycle analysis, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. That’s because the additional processing and shipping of liquefied gas would put even more greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.

“In the ’60s we put a needle in one arm—it was called oil,” Rogers said. “If the shale gas doesn’t play out as predicted, and we build a lot of gas plants in this country, and we don’t drill offshore, we’re going to be putting the needle in the other arm and it’s going to be called gas.”

The utilities are in a bind because they have to build new power plants to meet the nation’s demand for energy, while anticipating an as-yet-undefined set of federal climate and emissions regulations that they believe are inevitable. Do they build new gas-fired plants, which can cost $2 billion and take three years to bring online? Or do they wait for proven systems that can capture carbon from coal-fired plants and sequester it underground?

If carbon sequestration works, coal-based power emissions could drop by 90 percent, said Nick Akins, president of American Electric Power, the nation’s largest electric utility and the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gas pollution. That suggests to Akins that natural gas may not be the solution to the nation’s energy needs, but rather the transitional fuel that bridges the gap to cleaner technologies.

"Going from a 100 percent CO2 emitter to a 50 percent solution when you could go beyond that is something we need to turn our attention to,” said Akins. “If there is a 90 percent solution for coal, and other forms like nuclear, and renewables, then obviously you want to push in that direction as well.”

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By prosefights, January 26, 2011 at 9:02 pm Link to this comment

Obama State of the Union address Tuesday January 25, 2011.

“In 2011, half of U.S. households will devote at least 20 percent of their after-tax income to energy. Ten years ago, these households spent only 12 percent of their income on energy. The affordability of coal-fueled electricity has helped moderate this increase in energy costs, and continued reliance on coal can help the U.S. to recover economically and American businesses to compete globally.” 

Big trouble ahead?

No way around

1 kWh = 3412.14163 BTU?

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, January 26, 2011 at 3:11 pm Link to this comment

QUOTE (of an avatar, quoting a misleading article):

“San Francisco’s Dept. of Waste figures it pays $4,000/ton to recycle plastic bags for which it receives $32/ton.”

That’s how externalization of industry costs work. They create the cost, and the taxpayers get the bill, with every externalization of cost profiting private industry at public expense.

The EE&T editor/writer of that article, Leland Teschler, cheerfully assaults recycling efforts and promotes Waste-to-Energy (WTE) with a bogus implied argument that it would be better for people to toss glass and plastic recyclables in the landfill to be used as fuel for WTE electric generation plants.

It’s bogus, because the first part of any reasonably responsible WTE processing is removal of non-fuel recyclables, like those beer bottles that Terry callously discards. What Terry does when he throws his beer bottles in the “trash” garbage is externalize the recycling cost to him (a few seconds of his time) upon his municipality. It costs his WTE using municipality a considerable amount of money to separate all the recyclables from the burnable garbage that the irresponsible citizens like him have thoughtlessly discarded together.

When my Electric Co-Op held its public hearing for its WTE project, I asked if they had considered the prospect that the plant would be short-lived because so much of what is discarded today can’t be used for fuel (our WTE does not burn any glass, or any plastic that can be separated out — recyclable or not). The CEO/General Manager answered that yes they had. The project would necessarily be of short-term benefit, because its fuel source would mainly be the gas from the decomposition of old organic garbage (from back when near everything wasn’t made of plastic as it is today), remnants of old garbage unearthed not yet decomposed, and the burnable organic material that constitutes a relatively small part of the garbage discarded today. The primary purpose of having the WTE plant was to extend the life of the county dump. It’s an immense public expense to build a new landfill. Filling the old one with recyclables, like Teschler suggests, makes that immense expense come sooner and more often.

One thing that favors those who oppose recycling is that we’ll not have a human habitable climate planet about the same time we run out of mineral resources to mine.

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By prosefights, January 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment

“Terry knows what he’s talking about. Canada’s National Post reports that all the glass collected last year by recycling programs in Calgary, Edmonton, and several other Canadian cities ended up landfilled because there were no buyers for it. The situation is similar for plastic. Reports are that Germany has millions of tons of recyclable plastics piled up in fields because nobody wants the stuff. And it is literally more expensive to collect some recyclables than to just pitch them. San Francisco’s Dept. of Waste figures it pays $4,000/ton to recycle plastic bags for which it receives $32/ton.”

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By Inherit The Wind, January 26, 2011 at 11:02 am Link to this comment

There are so many ways to reduce usage before we need to compromise our lifestyle, that it isn’t funny.
1) If every American roof is painted white, estimated reductions in summer AC usage run as high as taking half the cars in the nation off the road.
2) Solar PVs on houses greatly reduce power companies’ generation.  If all new house are built with solar panels, general consumption of fueled electricity goes down.
3) Geo-thermal heat pumps. Using that natural underground temp of 50-58 degrees, heat pumps, even in the coldest climates, can run efficiently, replacing home heating oil and natural gas.
4) Smaller wind generators.  Some are vertical turbines that can generate 1k watts or more.  Far less intrusive and ideal for roof-top mounting.  Larger versions would be ideal for inner-city sky-scraper applications.
5) Obvious uses: Why use gas-based pool heaters when there are plenty of solar options and heat pumps (very efficient for pool heating).
6) Hydrogen.  If this can be captured at the individual household level, and reused, it’s non-polluting.  How? Have wind and solar run a fuel cell in reverse to gen H2.  Then use the H2 with the fuel cell to gen energy when the wind and solar aren’t available.

And these are just a few of the obvious ones.  Natural Gas has a few obvious advantages.
1) The US has a lot of it.
2) Reduction of dependence on foreign oil and LNG
3) Reduced transportation costs.

But the problems are being covered up, in that production has to have fewer leaks, and that the hydro-cracking method pollutes ground water (denied by the industry).

Methane is a natural element in our environment, like CO2.  It helps regulate the ozone layer and is produced in massive amounts by living critters, of which the largest contributor is (no foolin’) termites.  But, like anything else, excessive amounts are bad.

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By SteveK9, January 26, 2011 at 9:56 am Link to this comment

The solution is nuclear power.  The human race will get there,
basically because 2+2 really does equal 4.  This from a lifelong
liberal, and a scientist.  The ‘problems’ with nuclear are myths. 
The technology that fossil fuel companies really fear is nuclear,
wind and solar are fine with them, because they will not really
change business as usual.

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By SoTexGuy, January 26, 2011 at 9:06 am Link to this comment

Queenie has it right..


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By Marshall, January 26, 2011 at 3:40 am Link to this comment

There is no such thing as “Green Energy” - each has its drawbacks and all are
major.  A varied mix of energy sources (including oil), each harmful in its own way
but mitigated somewhat by avoiding over-reliance, is the only responsible way to
deal with the fallout from the demands for energy by a growing world.

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By David J. Cyr, January 26, 2011 at 12:01 am Link to this comment

The Un-Clean and Un-Natural Side of Natural Gas:

BOOK REVIEW: Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air:

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By Big B, January 25, 2011 at 8:36 pm Link to this comment

We are so fucked.

When was the last time you heard anybody in the US mention that the oil will run out by 2050?(and that’s the oil companies estimates, in truth, it’s probably sooner than that) The coal industry has spent alot of green (pun intended) to lie to us about the amount of coal that is left under the USA. (they say its around 300 years worth, most reponsible estimates put it at 100 years at current consumtion) And of course natural gas is going to save us all, while poisoning the (fracking) countryside.

Who would have thought that americans would, instead of accepting and going full bore at a future of alternative energy, that we would dig and pump every last once of oil, coal and gas, out of the earth. But of course, we are the same nation that believes in angels, and ghosts, and invisible men in the sky that will always provide us with what we need.

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By anon, January 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Critics of Nat Gas as a transport fuel are an odd combination of chemical, metal refiners and electric producers (which both use CNG as feedstock) and the alt-energy and biofuel guys. 

The first is trying to keep CNG for traditional uses.  Creating plastics, aluminum and power.

The second, trying to keep CNG out of transports to protect there investments.

Regarding this EPA report, follow the money.  Who did the research?  And who provided them their grants? 

The truth is CNG for transport fuel is coming and can’t be stopped.  The market has spoken.

Nat Gas as a transport fuel is even used in areas with major oil finds (Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan).

Now that we have found SOOOO much and it is SOOO cheap and SOOO here in the US, it will be used here too.

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By Conden, January 25, 2011 at 8:02 pm Link to this comment

Natural gas is a dirty, toxic fuel.  We need to pursue only solar, tidal, wind, and geothermal electricity, and use as little of it as we possibly can.  Empower a local, organic, diverse agriculture of nutritious plant foods, and forget about trying to protect the current, unsustainable fossil gulag we live under.

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By Queenie, January 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm Link to this comment

Our energy policy is based on a false assumption that we do not need to cut back our usage to conserve and reduce our dependence on any finite fuel.

Here in Maine the wind energy bandwagon is blasting off the tops of ridges and mountains and clear-cutting vest swathes of forest yet none of the energy from wind will be used by Maine people. It will be transported down to big cities in other parts of New England on new super-duper lines paid for by the ratepayers of Maine.

If we retrofitted and insulated our aging infrastructure here, we would save more energy than all the wind power combined. And it would last longer than 20 or so years - the average lifespan of a windmill. And it would give many a job so badly needed in our state.

But that savings in fuel is called anti-business and ridiculed by wind “experts” who have popped up like toadstools on a wet summer day.

We all have to learn to live simpler lives and do with less so that others can simply live.

Reduce, reuse and recycle.

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