What to Make of the Shale Revolution?

By Keith Kloor | August 29, 2012 2:20 pm

To frack or not to frack seems like a good question to ask in the context of the climate debate. To ignore it or dismiss it out of hand won’t make it go away. And now that Michael Bloomberg and a leading environmental organization are teaming up to make fracking environmentally friendly, you can bet that the debate is about to take a few new turns.

Where it’s headed I couldn’t say, but I do ask this question in a new post at Discover: “Will Fracking Help or Hinder the Fight Against Climate Change?”

  • John F. Pittman

    Keith the problem with what BBD and Marlowe say in the previous thread, is not that it is not true. It is not recognized that these large emissions are built in to avoid the economic catastrophe that others were pointing out. Like one question is that Marlowe wants to know where this is said. It is incdirectly said in WG2 and 3 of the IPCC. In order for their version of polyannaism to happen fossil fuels have to be replaced by a low schedule. In that respect Bloomberg is correct. In respect to stopping CO2 emissions Marlowe and mt are correct if you set a tonnage. Because there is inertia in the economic system and investments made, almost any investment made today in FF’s will tie in emissions. The question the IPCC was trying to answer is how to make the change in an acceptable based on their criteria.

  • Joshua

    Keith –

    Thanks for a balanced article.

    Did I mention that I think the article is balanced?

    That said, (twice), and although you discuss the issue in more detail later in the article,  I wonder about the following sentence towards the beginning:

    “Gas emits much less carbon than coal (probably between 25% and 50% less), which is a net plus on the global warming ledger.”

    Wouldn’t a more accurate description be?:

    “Since gas emits much less carbon than coal, it represents an improvement by decreasing the net negative of the global warming ledger.”

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Try adding the word where.

  • Howard

    I agree with Joshua, fracking is not a CO2 solution.  It’s a potential replacement for imported oil and domestic coal.  There are huge environmental and potential military benefits to this.  Not to mention, it keeps more money in the USA and potentially fueling new manufacturing with cheap energy. 

  • Tom Scharf

    It is totally irrelevant what the “hive mind” of environmentalists has to say about this.  They are like a huge flock of crows squawking away endlessly.  The brain tunes them out after just a couple minutes. Gas conversion will happen with or without their approval, because it makes economic sense, improves total CO2 emissions, and makes us closer to energy independent.

    Is anybody really surprised that  the hive mind is against natural gas?  Nuclear energy?  I admit that I was when I first started examining these issues, but no longer.  

    Realistically if we truly discovered a way to burn clean coal (and I freely admit clean coal was a laughable marketing ploy) and emit only rainbows and gold, do you think the hive mind would line up behind it?  Call me cynical if you will.

    But feel free to continue on with the unicorn hunt.  Dismiss economic arguments and continue debating what level of carbon taxation is “just right” to save humanity from itself.  This should save the day.  We’ll just leave a blank check on your doorstep.

    But don’t forget to take some time off to fight every solar panel and windmill in your own backyard.       

  • Tom Scharf

    KK: Very good post by the way.  Sorry it resulted in setting off another repetitive rant on the incoherency of climate policy from myself, couldn’t help it.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Hmm, look what the hive mind says

    Coal is a low-cost and abundant energy source with hundreds of years of supply. We look toward the private sector’s development of new, state-of-the-art coal-fired plants that will be low-cost, environmentally responsible, and efficient. We also encourage research and development of advanced technologies in this sector, including coal-to-liquid, coal gasification, and related technologies for enhanced oil recovery

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Well, Tom, Eli agrees that you were incoherent, but nothing new.

  • Paul Kelly

    Not us, but experts seem to agree that drastic emission cuts are a 50 -75 year proposition that can only go step by step from slowing the rate of emissions increase, to stabilizing emission, to reducing them in further steps down to desired levels.  How can an immediate large reduction in emissions be anything but a positive?  The emissions saved accrue in an arithmetic progression.  Fracking will reduce emissions more than any global conference or governmental body has to date. It is not a bridge. It is a rather large first step. So let’s get onto the next one.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    The problem with the Last Ton proposition is that it only values the last ton…

  • http://planet3.org mt

    I think the right way to approach this is contingent on whether we have a workable global carbon agreement with “teeth”, that is, a final total emissions target which is observed and enforced

    If we are committed to drastic reductions over the century, if we have a clear globally accepted and enforced target for the last ton, then yes, gas is a good thing because it gives us more slack on the way. If we aren’t, it isn’t, because its infrastructure will tend to create incentives to keep going, and more to the point because it just adds to the final carbon burden.

    I’m not saying I’m against substitution in principle. I think the local environmental risks and drawbacks are acceptable. I have seen firsthand, and note and sympathize with, the frustration of the industry. Its engineers are faced with an indecisive press that can’t resolve issues of fact and scale, and is much more interested in promoting controversy than in resolving it with facts. I’ve heard their complaints and they are strikingly familiar!

    What I am saying is that it’s very risky to favor new fossil fuel sources until there is a compelling reason to believe that the competing old fossil fuel sources are being permanently abandoned. We’re a far piece from there. Until then we can’t treat it as a substitute, but as an addition. See McKibben’s Rolling Stone article. The trouble is that identified reserves are immediately on the books as shareholder value, and the economic machine will protect that value. That means eventually burning the stuff.

    Where does the “bridge” actually go?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Many other successful movements have lacked anything like the clear plan and set goals Dr. Tobis calls for.

    They just wing it and live from tactical victory to tactical victory and wind up mystified winners.

  • Paul Kelly

    I don’t mind the last ton proposition, but it should accurately be the last ton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. Different forms of carbon emit different amounts of CO2 per amount of energy produced. Either way, someone should make a chart showing when the trillion ton mark is likely to be hit and the amount of energy that will be needed at that time and how much carbon burning will have to be replaced or prevented  to keep the burning under it.

  • Paul Kelly

    mt….How long are you willing to wait for a workable global carbon agreement with “teeth”, that is, a final total emissions target which is observed and enforced? What possible evidence do you have that such a toothsome agreement will ever happen? If we must act now, why do you insist on that which insures inaction?

  • http://planet3.org mt

    #13 That’s great. Now we can talk more productively.#14 Have you read McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone yet? The problem is that there is economic momentum behind burning all reserves, and we keep finding more anyway. If a last ton policy were in place globally, then gas would win over coal enough but not too much. Failing that, the market signals we need aren’t there and we are likely to overshoot the optimum production capacity.The end result will either be a global agreement or a catastrophe. I see very little likelihood of any other scenario, so I prefer the global agreement. And unless and until it happens, I think it makes sense to oppose any further development of any fossil-fuel production capacity at all.

  • harrywr2

    We are going to need peaking resources for the foreseeable future. We simply don’t know how to do large scale energy storage.
    However much money is being invested in CCGT generating infrastructure won’t go to waste. With operating lives in the range of 30 years they also won’t be with us forever.The current unknowns as to costs and operating performance of Gen III Nuclear Plants won’t be resolved for another 5 years. Questions regarding GenIV nuclear plants and SMR’s won’t be resolved for another 10 years.It would be less then prudent to begin a large scale buildout of Gen III nuclear plants today.

  • PDA

    Absent the shale supply, the United States could have expected to see GHG emissions 2 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 under this relatively weak policy. But the lower gas prices under the current shale gas outlook will stimulate economic growth, leading GHG emissions to increase by 13 percent over 2005. And the shale gas will retard the growth of renewable energy’s share of electricity, and push off the development of carbon capture and storage technology, needed to meet more ambitious policy targets, by as long as two decades.

    Why on earth would environmentalists favor a reduction in GHGs over an increase? Must be that hive mind thing.

  • harrywr2

    #11 mt

    If we are committed to drastic reductions over the century, if we have a clear globally accepted and enforced target for the last ton

    How are we going to enforce the agreement? If  treaty’s become inconvenient then the signatories simply withdraw. Sometimes some enforcement action occurs, sometimes nothing happens. Considering that the largest emitters will almost certainly have the most powerful armies any enforcement action seems improbable at best. Nobody is going to deliberately turn off the lights and risk internal civil unrest.
    In the end we either end up developing safe cost effective carbon emissions free technologies and the problem solves itself or we don’t.

  • Tom Scharf

    #17 – I agree, this is an excellent example of the hive mind at work.  Cheap energy is the enemy.  Lower cost / low carbon energy sources will emit more carbon (wave hand to induce Jedi mind trick).  The only acceptable answer for the good of humanity is high cost energy.  Excellent battle plan from the hive mind.

  • http://planet3.org mt

    #19: For the 999th time, fossil fuel energy is not cheap. It is hugely expensive. The main costs are socialized and mostly deferred. 

    Fossil energy is already very high cost. We’re just keeping the debt off the books for now.

  • Ed Forbes

    “..The main costs are socialized and mostly deferred…” …Only if you hold the demented view that more CO2 is a “bad thing”…..Fracking is the best thing that has happened to the US in decades….Reduces our balance of payments, reduces the pressure for wars to capture energy supplies, more energy equals more wealth, and NG burns cleaner and produces less product that is truly dangerous.

  • Keith Kloor

    A relevant and really good piece that I should have mentioned in my Discover post recently appeared at Yale env 360.

    I should also note that one energy wonk (who has strongly disagreed with me in the past on other issues) is more accepting of the role natural gas can play during a transition to a low carbon future.

  • Howard

    mt and PDA have the same take on environmental justice as the WUWT comment mob.  These diametrically opposed extremists shout with one voice: Let them eat polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon particulates. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/08/28/follow-the-warming-money/

  • Howard

    “I should also note that one energy wonk (who has strongly disagreed with me in the past on other issues) is more accepting of the role natural gas can play during a transition to a low carbon future.”  How about a low toxic pollution future… or is the air in NYC just fine for you and your growing family?

  • MarkB

    Given that the same people who are against shale gas are also against nuclear power, and given that both cut down on CO2 emissions, what can we say about such people? They say they want to cut CO2 emissions – to save the planet – but they are against the two best ways to do it. I think it’s fair to say that we can only conclude that they don’t really want to cut CO2 emissions, as a practical matter. I can only explain this by assuming that they see CO2 emissions not as a practical problem, to be solved in a practical manner, but as a moral issue. If CO2 emissions are a sin, rather than a practical problem, then extracting shale gas doesn’t improve CO2 emissions, it simply sins a little less. And no fire and brimstone preacher ever exhorted his listeners to sin somewhat less. And of course, nuclear power is the same – born in sin, it cannot be measured or moderated, it can only be suppressed entirely. In this way, rigid environmentalists are very much like right wing Christians, who allow no exception for abortion.

  • http://planet3.org Michael Tobis

    #22 Nogee “agrees” with Keith and concludes “That said, the gas industry hasn’t really picked up the olive branch
    offered by some environmental leaders to partner in such a scenario. The
    industry would need to take water issues a lot more seriously. And
    renewables do need ongoing policy support to continue growing while gas
    prices are low. It may be that a period of grassroots fracking
    opposition will be (unfortunately) needed to get the gas industry to
    cooperate in a broader gas/renewable energy agenda
    .”

    If that constitutes agreement then I agree too.

  • Keith Kloor

    Michael, you cherry-picked the one part you agree with. What about Nogee’s main point?

  • Eric Adler

    It seems wishful thinking to me, to believe that Bloomberg’s group will succeed in making fracking environmentally benign. It is pretty clear that the gas companies own many  state governments; and will continue to do fracking in the most profitable manner no matter what best practices the Bloomberg initiative comes up with.  In fact, doctors who treat people whose health is damaged by fracking chemicals, and find out what they are,  are prevented from disclosing this to the public by laws in Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio. The availability of this information to doctors and the public, in other states is often not clear. Instead of protecting the public, these laws put the public at risk.  

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    The hive mind wonders when the pearl clutcher is going to put Tom Scharf on double secret moderation?

  • http://planet3.org mt

    #27 All of Nogee’s comment seems reasonable to me. The part I quoted is more or less equivalent to the caveat I’ve been raising. I thought agreement with it implied agreement with the rest. It’s nothing like what I’d call a cherry pick.

    I am a bit worried about stray methane but apparently that can be controlled as well. Other than the greenhouse impact I don’t believe that fracking is more harmful on the ground than most other energy technologies at scale.

  • Leo G

    It appears that slowly, people are getting tired of screaming over each other. I log on to many sites of both ilks, and observe. I have been seeing an undercurrent for about the last 18 months or so, of the proponents, maybe somewhat unconciously, heading towards some slight concilliation. There are always those that will never move off of their position, but some of the bigger names in this affair, I am noticing, are allowing a bit of the other side to see some light. 

  • Tom Scharf

    #20 Pardon me if I don’t exactly trust the output of Tobis Climate Accounting with respect to the cost of energy.  I understand their is an argument there, but the numbers reek of political propaganda, right up there with climate refugees and how many deaths are caused by climate change every year.  It’s a weak argument based on a lot of nebulous assumptions.

    Occam’s razor says the hive mind has concluded that in order to meet their own carbon goals, the global output of carbon based energy must be significantly reduced in the near term.  The simplest and quickest path is to use market forces, making energy costs artificially high to reduce energy use.  Significant reduction requires significant carbon taxes.  This will likely work if implemented.

    Everyone understands this argument.  It is coherent.  It is also a political loser with a capital L.

    There have been many attempts to dress this pig up in different clothes.  A favorite is to pretend that no suffering will occur, or that only the “right people” will suffer.  

    It is the root of the argument against low cost / low(er) carbon energy.  I just think people should be honest about it, because obfuscating it doesn’t fool anybody.  Anybody.

    Tobis, you think I don’t understand your argument, but I do.  I simply reject the assumptions it is built upon.  When you treat your assumptions as fact, that weakens your argument further.  I know you have thought a lot longer and harder on this subject than I have.  That does not lead me to believe your assumptions are valid.  

  • Tom Scharf

    I would agree the evil side of capitalism will eventually rear its ugly head, and the cost of natural gas will rise until it is just under the cost of other fossil fuels.  Profit will be maximized.  It will take a bit of illegal collusion between providers, but its not like that isn’t already happening in many other industries, especially in Japan.  The rise of “big gas” may be imminent.  

  • http://planet3.org mt

    #32 I’m really not part of any hive mind. Since this is my turf I really try to find the best information and think the consequences through for myself. This means I don’t accept every argument made in favor of carbon emissions restraint or the green agenda, and I’ll appreciate if you don’t associate my name with every dubious claim.

    The main point is that if we burn all the fuel that there is, we will greatly damage the world, quite possibly to the point of collapse. So we have to decide how much fuel to burn.

    I’m not an extremist by inclination, any more than Hansen is. Nor do I have unwarranted faith in either climate science or economics –  both these fields seem to me to have real weaknesses. But the evidence that we need to leave as much of the carbon in the ground as possible is overwhelming. This is not an “assumption”, it is an informed conclusion. You may not believe me, but I really, truly wish it were otherwise.

    When people calling themselves “centrists” ask us to abandon this point or act as if it were irrelevant, I conclude that they are ill-informed, and refuse not on philosophical, political or “tribal” grounds, but because their proposals are based on wishful thinking.

    Anything that gets us to the last ton is good; anything that acts against getting to the last ton is bad. This is so important that it’s really that simple.

    Whether natural gas as a replacement for coal is helpful or harmful does not depend on the technology used to get it or on the properties of the fuel itself. It depends on the political context in which it is done. And right now that is not reassuring.

    If that is a “political loser” so much the worse for all of us. It won’t be a loser forever, though.The sooner we accept that these strange environmental events are our own doing and for practical purposes in line with what was predicted decades ago, the better.

  • harrywr2

    #28 Eric Alder

    In fact, doctors who treat people whose health is damaged by fracking
    chemicals, and find out what they are,  are prevented from disclosing
    this to the public by laws in Pennsylvania, Texas and Ohio.

    The disclosure rules are identical to OSHA disclosure rules.http://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3084.html

    The standard strikes a balance between the need to protect exposed
    employees and the employer’s need to maintain the confidentiality of a
    bona fide trade secret. This is achieved by providing for limited
    disclosure to health professionals who are furnishing medical or other
    occupational health services to exposed employees, employees and their
    designated representatives, under specified conditions of need and
    confidentiality.

    So our medical professionals have been dealing with confidentiality regarding chemical exposure as a matter of workplace safety for quite some time with little or no complaint from the public.

  • Leo G

    Well it appears that the cost of extracting shale gas, etc., like most technologies is on a downward trend. From the Bish’s site – http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2012/8/31/hiway-to-heaven.html#comments

  • Leo G

    I’ve never understood these extreme/andrenilin junkies. They would rather jump into a raging river then walk a couple of hundred feet further up the bank and have a nice stroll across the bridge.  My advice, use the bridge of natural gas, including the methane balls that are soon to be available in the tundra.

  • jim

    mt Says:

    “For the 999th time, fossil fuel energy is not cheap. It is hugely expensive. The main costs are socialized and mostly deferred.   Fossil energy is already very high cost. We’re just keeping the debt off the books for now.”

    Tragically discounting the benefits. 
     

  • Eric Adler

    Harrywr2,Thank you for providing the link to OSHA regulations.Your quote of the OSHA regulations on prohibition of public disclosure by doctors, of materials that cause injury to people is interesting, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Looking at other parts of the regulations dealing with danger to the people at their workplace, OSHA requires that employers give their employees training about the hazardous materials that they encounter in the workplace. In addition all hazardous materials must be labelled for the safety of downstream users of the product regardless of whether there is a trade secret there.  From what we know, there are hazardous materials involved in fracking, but the gas companies are not required to disclose them. This is in contrast to OSHA regulations which require disclosure, regardless of trade secrets.

  • BillC

    mt & others,I agree with a lot of what you say about the last ton, I want to add some things that may not have been said explicitly here.the last ton matters but its timing matters a lot too. even slowing growth in emissions buys time. it also buys lower buildup in the atmosphere to some extent as system dynamics come into play and the biosphere and yes, oceans, can sequester more. Sure, ocean acidification exists, but i have a hard time thinking it has exactly the same time frame for required mitigation/adaptation as AGW.i have a hard time thinking anyone really wants coal (except those who own it or make a living from it, and the politicians who represent them). if the overall infrastructure for electric power generation goes toward gas – worldwide – which is looking more and more likely even in spite of the “rich world” coal exports to China, India etc. – as more shale gas producing regions go on line and the technology is further refined in the early adopting areas in tandem.

  • http://theidiottracker.blogspot.com/ Robert

    I was excited by the title of the post, and disappointed to see that really no effort was made to answer the question posed: can shale gas significantly slow global warming compared to other energy sources?I took a crack at it here: http://bit.ly/TFhMoYMy bottom line is similar to Tobis': there may be a window where shale gas helps instead of hinders, but we’re not going to hit that sweet spot by accident, in a minimally regulated scramble for profit.

  • http://theidiottracker.blogspot.com/ Robert

    Correct link:http://bit.ly/TFhMoY

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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