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Quiggin: don’t write off CSG if you’re worried about the climate

The overwhelmingly important issue in assessing our response to coal seam gas and similar unconventional gas sources such as shale gas is the impact of CSG development on climate change.

There are, of course, a lot of problems associated with drilling, extraction, transport and so on, but the same is true of other fossil fuels, not to mention renewables like wind, which have attracted a fair bit of community opposition in some places. The climate change question raises two issues, neither of which are easy to resolve:

  • First, what is the global warming potential of CSG, and how does it compare to conventional natural gas?
  • Second, what’s the relationship between CSG and the broad campaign to stabilize the global climate?

On the first question, the big question is whether CSG (and for that matter, conventional natural gas) is associated with excess methane emissions, and if so, how much this changes the standard assessment that gas has about half the global warming potential of oil or coal. The issues are complex, and it’s hard to find a trustworthy source. The CSG companies say there’s no problem but of course that’s what they would say.

Advocacy or expertise?

On the other hand, the main source for the view that methane is a big problem, Robert Howarth of Cornell, is clearly an advocate rather than an independent expert. The most obvious way in which he skews the data is to focus on a 20 year timeframe, which makes the impact of methane look a lot bigger, since it has a shorter residence time.  The justification he’s offered, that this is the typical life of a gas project, is nonsensical. Howarth’s work has received lots of criticism on other grounds that I’m less competent to assess, but having seen him load the dice on an issue I understand, I’m not inclined to give him much credence on other points.

Howarth relies heavily on the argument that shale gas companies vent unburnt methane to the atmosphere. There is dispute over the extent of this practice, but in any case the US EPA has prohibited it, despite claims by the oil and gas industry that such restrictions are unnecessary overkill.

Some papers criticising Howarth and supporting the standard assessment can be accessed here and here. Of particular interest is this paper from the Tyndall Centre, which comes out strongly against unconventional gas, but nevertheless concludes that its GWP is similar to that of the conventional kind and around half that of coal and says:

The Tyndall argument against fracking is simply that any cheap additional supply of fossil fuel is likely to increase total energy use and discourage the growth of renewables and that this will more than offset any benefit from the substitution of gas for coal. This is probably too complicated to assess in a single post.

The first question is analytical — is the Tyndall analysis right about the impact of expanding natural gas supplies, from whatever source they are obtained? The answer — it depends.

The effect of cheap natural gas on climate change

If we are relying on a combination of technical progress and some limited support for renewable energy to solve our problems, then cheap natural gas is likely to make matters worse. Investment in renewables has fluctuated (though around a rising trend) precisely because of the variability in these policies.

Climate change, CSG, carbon pricing and the policy and political debates

On the other hand, if we had a carbon price consistent with stabilizing the global climate, say $50/tonne, new natural gas would almost entirely act as a substitute for coal and a complement for an expanding supply of renewables.

As it is, Australia is in a halfway house. We have a carbon price, but it is well below the level that is really needed. I hope that, once the carbon price comes into effect, and the alleged dire consequences don’t materialise, it will be possible to open the question of increasing the price, at least for the period after 2020.

There is also a question of political tactics. Globally, it’s clearly too late to think about an across-the-board ban, so the question is how much effort to put into campaigns about particular gas projects, as opposed to other fossil fuel projects, and campaigns for better climate policies (carbon prices, energy efficiency, less energy-intensive lifestyles) in general.

From the climate change viewpoint, the main case for focusing on CSG projects, rather than, for example, new coal mines or coal-fired power stations, is that they may be easier to stop. But it’s important to recognise that the payoff from stopping a CSG project is much less than that from stopping a coal project of the same size (in terms of the energy produced or used).

Similar questions arise in the Australian context. For example, there’s an obvious tactical problem in making alliances with Bob Katter. While he is good on some issues, he’s a climate delusionist, an opponent of carbon pricing and a supporter of coal mining.

To sum up: if you share my view that climate change is the most important environmental issue facing Australia and the world, you should be very cautious about advocating all out opposition to CSG.

*Professor John Quiggin is a Federation Fellow in economics and political science at the University of Queensland

  • 1
    Policeman MacCruiskeen
    Posted Monday, 20 February 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Conserving a planet that is both habitable and worth living on is the ‘long front’ as Naess described it. I don’t rate either global warming or CSG as the most pressing issue. I rate the most pressing environmental issue as the one in relation to which I am able to exercise the maximum agency. It’s situational.

    After which, even if CSG could be shown to be the best option for slowing warming, I’d still oppose extraction in the Pilliga forest of NSW because preservation of forests like the Pilliga go towards sustaining a world worth inhabiting. And I’d oppose extraction in other parts of NSW because it is an ugly industrialisation of vast swathes the earth’s crust. Apparently there are other environmental issues with it as well.

    If CSG were part of a concrete transition program to a future free from fossil fuels and a political economy based on equity, justice and peace then I’d go all the way in support of it. It’s not, of course, and won’t be. It’s just another way for a particular fraction of capital to squeeze a big quid out of the planet and keep things bubbling along business as usual.

    But it’ll be business as usual for how long? One generation? Two? Longer term horizons are necessary John Quiggin.

  • 2
    David Spratt
    Posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    There is research, apart from Robert Howarth of Cornell, on high methane emissions from CSG, for example this study just out:

    Fracking study sends alert about leakage of potent greenhouse gas

    And in defense of Howarth et al, their work is peer-reviewed in journals such as “Climate Change”, so shaming them as “an advocate rather than an independent expert” is a cheap shot. And according to Renee Santoro, in a recent post to “The Conversation”: “We assessed the greenhouse gas impact of shale gas development over 100-year and 20-year time frames and in terms of energy (in MJ) and power (kWh) produced”.

    Most important is this very significant study from Myhrvold and Caldeira, which finds that there is no “no time to waste” on transition to green energy:
    Myhrvold N P and Caldeira K (2012), Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity Environ. Res. Lett. 7 014019

    They find that natural gas will just delay the problem. “Our calculations show that with natural gas it will take a little longer to get to the same amount of cumulative emissions and warming, so it would delay a bad outcome, but not avoid it,” Caldeira told environmentalresearchweb.

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    CSG is just another front for fossil fuel exports to Asia. It won’t replace coal; it’ll just be poured into the existing maw. The Western Australian experience shows us exposure to the export market will triple the price of gas domestically. The environmental concerns are already well known and include the problems with dredging ports in a world heritage area.

    Phasing-out coal should and must be the priority for a developed nation that accepts climate change, but unfortunately regional QLD and NSW and the political parties are so coalpromized, that preventing the viral spread of a new fossil fuel industry is likely a high achievement. The next challenge will be to prevent the rise of nazi/apartheid-era “liquid coal”.

    Domestically, like Germany, investment in the grid to support a higher percentage of renewable energy is required. In terms of exports, the mining tax should incorporate a levy for exported fossil fuels that aren’t already levied at or around our carbon price or carbon captured at the destination - with the funds possibly used for developing nations struggling to fund cleaner alternatives.

  • 4
    Chris Sanderson
    Posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Prof Quigin, Your opening sentence states: “The overwhelmingly important issue in assessing our response to coal seam gas (CSG) and similar unconventional gas sources such as shale gas is the impact of CSG development on climate change.”

    This is an attempt to re-frame the CSG debate and confuse the issues for those who believe the climate change science.

    Since you are an economist rather than a climate change scientist, I don’t believe you are qualified to make such a statement and your motives for doing so are suspect.

    As an economist however, your statement implies that you believe that the govt revenues from exporting CSG are far more important that the devastation that CSG is causing now on the farming, tourism and fisheries industries.

    That sounds to me as though you are acting politically by spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) on behalf of the CSG industry and the related Qld govt current policies.

    The fact is that climate activists need to join forces with the farming, tourism and fisheries industries against the common enemy - the fossil fuel industry.

    We need to work together to change the grossly unjust federal and state legislation that currently gives such outrageous and destructive power to these largely overseas owned miners. They care nothing for the future of Australia and are simply in pursuit of their financial profit at our expense.

    This current legislation allows miners in general and the CSG industries in particular to destroy without redress the properties and livelihoods of individual Australians in these industries, as well as destroying Australia’s food export potential from our prime agricultural areas.

    THAT is the overwhelmingly important economic and environmental issue that this country must address.

  • 5
    Douglas Evan
    Posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Prof Quiggin says:
    “The most obvious way in which he skews the data is to focus on a 20 year timeframe, which makes the impact of methane look a lot bigger, since it has a shorter residence time. The justification he’s offered, that this is the typical life of a gas project, is nonsensical.”

    The Abstract from Howarth, Ingraffea and Santoro refereed paper in Climatic Change says:
    “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.” Further figure 1 in the published paper gives estimates 0f GHG emissions for unconventional gas, conventional gas, coal and diesel oil over both 20 year and 100 year horizons.

    Clearly they did evaluate both the 20 year and the 100 year time frame as Santoro said in his ‘Conversation’ piece.

    Prof Quiggin seems to have misunderstood something - Did he read the paper?

    Prof Quiggin says:
    “Howarth relies heavily on the argument that shale gas companies vent unburnt methane to the atmosphere. There is dispute over the extent of this practice, but in any case the US EPA has prohibited it, despite claims by the oil and gas industry that such restrictions are unnecessary overkill.”

    A major 2011 study by Tom Wigley from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and Adelaide University concluded that:
    “unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.” http://www.springerlink.com/content/b430681263425q64/

    Now, as the journal Nature reports, we finally have some actual air sampling measurements, and they appear to confirm the higher estimates put forward by Howarth:
    Air sampling by NOAA over Colorado finds 4% Methane leakage, more than double industry claims. “the study estimates that natural-gas producers in an area known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere — not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system. This is more than double the official inventory, but roughly in line with estimates made in 2011 that have been challenged by industry.”

    So Wigley says no GHG advantage for unconventional gas with leakage rates above 2% and NOAA finds 4% leakage over Colorado gas fields. Perhaps Prof Quiggin needs to broaden his reading a bit or does he question Wigley’s modelling and the NOAA’s air sampling?

    There is plenty to disagree with in the rest of this piece but the above is probably enough to go on with for now.

  • 6
    Roger Clifton
    Posted Thursday, 23 February 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    the standard assessment that gas has about half the global warming potential of oil or coal” That isn’t a standard technical assessment, it’s just a salesman’s lie, repeated all too often like the oxymoron, “natural gas”.

    Apart from the balance of gases in and out of a well-adjusted furnace, there is also the 1-2% leakage of methane from long-distance pipelines, and variously 1 to 10% of methane leakage from ageing municipal pipelines. Then there is 10-40% of carbon dioxide which comes up out of the reservoir with the methane, dumped somewhere out-of-sight and bound for the greenhouse later. Then there is also the question of how much methane leaks out of the broached reservoir after the company has distributed profits and moved on.

    Oh, and guys, please stop calling methane “natural gas”. It can kill the climate, and that ain’t natural for species like us.

  • 7
    The Old Bill
    Posted Tuesday, 28 February 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Its about time we stopped stuffing about the edges and used already proven clean green methods where possible.

    Solar has stalled. Why? Because it is too efficient. I live in SA where I am about to get into trouble for making too much clean energy and “profiteering” by producing clean energy back into the grid for businesses to use during the day. Problem is, when the Libs privatised our power here in SA they promised a minimum amount of profit for the coal burning “energy generators” for 30 years!!! Oops - now we have to pay for our electricity twice if we want it from renewable sources :)

    Meanwhile, coal seam gas, ethanol fuel etc. all get bandied about for no reason.

    And lets not start on hydrogen powered cars and why we haven’t been using them for years. It works in California and would be working in Europe by now if the likes of Shell hadn’t stalled on building refill stations.