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Page added on September 30, 2013

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How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution


In last week’s Opinion Pages of the New York Times, columnist Mark Bittman argues that natural gas has little potential as a bridge to zero-carbon energy and that gas should play a limited role in the country’s energy strategy. He concludes by urging the nation to dismantle its existing energy infrastructure, and filling the gap with wind, solar, and other renewables. Here we examine Bittman’s arguments, and the studies and literature he employs to back them up, and find them wanting.  

Natural gas and nuclear have done more than any other fuel source to displace coal, and have saved the United States 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. In the past five years, natural gas alone has displaced coal and driven the country’s power sector emissions down 20 percent, leading to immense environmental and human health benefits. What follows is a response to Mark Bittman’s dreary diagnosis of natural gas.

Gas is killing coal across the country. In the last five years, coal’s share of electricity has declined from 50 to 38 percent, while gas’ share has increased from 22 to 30 percent. This shift has culminated in a massive nationwide reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and enormous environmental and health benefits. As we document in a recent report, coal is far worse than gas on virtually every health and environmental metric; it leads to many more deaths, pollutant emissions, and much greater ecosystem impacts than gas. The wide-ranging benefits of gas’ assault on coal should be celebrated, not obfuscated.

Gas is a bridge fuel to zero-carbon energy if we want it to be. Studies that actually model natural gas as a bridge fuel find natural gas could help stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and play a significant role in limiting the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to 550 parts per million, provided that zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear power, carbon capture-equipped gas plants, and renewables are simultaneously deployed.

Claiming that our situation is too dire for bridge fuels, Bittman cites a Climate Progress article that relies on an International Energy Agency (IEA) special report titled “Are we entering a golden age I m gas?” The report, however, fails to model a gas-bridge scenario, instead only showing what would happen if natural gas increased and growth in zero-carbon energy remained at business-as-usual levels. By definition, if gas was employed as a bridge fuel it would not be expected to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide single-handedly, but would be simultaneously deployed with other forms of low-carbon energy.

Renewables need gas. One of natural gas’ most important strengths as a bridge technology is its ability to support the continued expansion and deployment of wind, solar, and other zero-carbon energy. By providing backup and firming capacity, the expansion of gas-fired power plants can accelerate the integration of intermittent power into existing electricity grids. Bittman concludes by calling for a “huge push to real renewables” and suggests “[dismantling] the existing infrastructure, starting with coal and nuclear,” but this is tantamount to destroying the very infrastructure wind and solar need.

Gas is a historic driver of emissions reductions. Since 1950, two energy sources – nuclear power and natural gas – have dramatically reduced the carbon intensity of our economy. Had the energy from these two sources been supplied with dirtier coal, there would be an additional 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today. By contrast, in 2012, the entire world’s energy sector emitted 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is 36 times more carbon dioxide displacement than that achieved by all non-hydro renewables. Rather than obsess over methane leakage rates, we should celebrate these gains.

Consensus shows 2 percent or less methane leakage. By relying on a few sources, including a dubious study by researchers at Cornell University, and invoking anecdotal evidence, Bittman obscures a wider consensus of studies that show that methane leakage from shale gas development is around 2 percent or less, thereby giving it a significant climate advantage over coal. The latest data from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas inventory pegs fugitive methane emissions at 1.5 percent of total production, and estimates that methane leakage is on the decline. The most comprehensive study of methane leakage from shale gas to date, published last week, estimates a 0.42 percent leakage rate for shale gas production.

High-impact, low-cost intervention could contain “super-emitters.” Rather than being an argument against the climate benefit of natural gas, as Bittman uses it, the existence of a small group of “super-emitters” suggests that methane leakage is not a diffuse issue, but one that could be isolated and addressed in a low-cost manner.

With gas, it pays to prevent emissions. Even without regulation, the likelihood of intervention is high because there are large financial incentives for developers to limit emissions from their wells. As the president of development of Southwestern Energy said to Bittman, it is cost-effective for developers to minimize fugitive emissions, since all methane leakage is money lost to gas producers.

There will also be a rapid shift in the wake of EPA’s natural gas emission standards, which will roll out in 2015 and require all gas developers to install technologies on wells to reduce their emissions by 95 percent or more. EPA’s emissions standards are expected to lead to 1.7 million tons of methane savings annually – the equivalent of removing 4 to 8 million cars from the road each year from a GHG emissions standpoint.

Energy transitions take time, and do not occur by dismantling current systems. Bittman’s casual dismissal of natural gas and nuclear power reveal his lack of understanding about how energy systems change. The US energy system has been changing gradually for hundreds of years, getting cleaner and more diverse through time. Rarely have energy systems undergone a “dismantling of the existing infrastructure,” instead evolving through time through social, economic, and technological forces. Gas abets, not hinders, this necessary evolution toward cleaner sources of energy.

Energy Collective

4 Comments on "How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution"

  1. HARM on Mon, 30th Sep 2013 11:34 pm 

    With all due respect, natural gas, while it has many benefits over coal, is hardly the cleanest energy source available. Yes, it does not require blowing off the top of mountains and dumping them into rivers and streams. Yes, burning coal does not produce as many greenhouse gases and release other toxins (heavy metals, radioactive elements) into the air or create as much acid rain. You also don’t have to deal with reservoirs full of toxic sludge to dispose of, unlike coal.

    However… fracking requires pumping a proprietary (trade secret) cocktail of presumably not-so-wonderful chemicals into the ground in places smack in the middle of the most important aquifers in the country -Ogallala, etc. It also has some unpleasant side effects of its own, including contaminated wells, flammable faucets, frack-induced earthquakes, etc. See “Gasland”, P.I & II for more info.

    Bottom line: there is no environmentally friendly and sustainable fossil fuel. The sooner we move to renewables, the better.

  2. GregT on Tue, 1st Oct 2013 12:19 am 

    “…….and play a significant role in limiting the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to 550 parts per million…….”

    Anyone else notice how the bar keeps getting raised? Last time I checked, 350 was the number to not exceed, but we’ve already blown by that. Now we are ‘flirting’ with 400, and many in the scientific community think that 450 could be very bad for our chances of survival.

    As HARM has pointed out above, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to alternates now. If we don’t, we are playing Russian roulette with our future.

  3. BillT on Tue, 1st Oct 2013 2:24 am 

    Just as the government has raised the ‘acceptable limits’ of radiation 10 times because it is bad for GE and the nuclear industry, so will the bar be raised on pollution until we are all living in a Sahara type world and are watching our kids shrink and die.

    There are no ‘renewables’ without energy from hydrocarbons. But, I guess some of us will just have to sit back and watch as the rest of the techies and economists discover that fact themselves. You cannot force a man to think. Some do not even have the capability any more. Too bad…

  4. rockman on Tue, 1st Oct 2013 12:02 pm 

    It’s nice to brag about how much e- production has shifted from coal to NG et al. Unfortunately that has little or no impact as to how much GHG is generated from US coal. US coal production has been steadily increasing for the last 50 years reaching an all-time high in 2008. Production has slipped a little since then thanks to lower prices…lower prices as a result of the international market being jammed with exported coal. Jammed with an increasing share of those exports from the US. For example US coal exports to China have increased 500% in recent years. We may be producing a smaller PERCENTAGE of our e- from coal but:

    In 2009, there were 1436 coal-powered units at the electrical utilities across the US, with the total nominal capacity of 338.732 GW. This compared to 1024 units at nominal 278 GW in 2000. So in 9 years the amount of e- generation capacity from burning coal increased 21% and the number of coal-powered units increased 40%. The actual average generated power from coal in 2006 was 227.1 GW, the highest in the world and still slightly ahead of China at that time.

    IOW the US e- generating system is ready to continue expanding the use of coal when NG prices rise. Though it may have lost some of its PERCENTAGE share of e- generation to NG coal burning capacity has significantly expanded in the last decade. And the US coal industry, unlike the oil industry, has recently proved it isn’t close to it peak production limits. All that’s required is a little better price and the US will once again be producing more coal then every before in history. Which will happen as NG prices inevitably increase since the number of rigs drilling for it has dropped over 70% in recent years as a result of lower prices.

    Stats from here:

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