Could fracking be our least worst option?

Shale Gas Operations in Wyoming extend over the landscape in an environmental devastating way. Shale gas in the UK would be unlikely to develop in this way, but there are still risks. Picture from Nature courtesy of National Geographic.

News today that a committee of experts has recommend a resumption of ‘fracking’ in the UK. At first I was surprised that this earthquake-inducing technology had been approved. But on reflection I see that the approval is really a measure of just how addicted we are to hydrocarbon consumption.

I expect the media will shortly have stories about the prospect of a financial bonanza, lower gas prices and independence from ‘foreign’ influence. These are all excellent economic reasons to invest in fracking. There will also be stories about the environmental risks, which are real and significant. And the balance between environmental risk and economic benefit will be the conflict at the heart of the media ‘stories’. But the stories will probably miss the one real reason why fracking may just possibly be justified: it could reduce carbon emissions

As I write this, the UK is using 31.87 GW of electricity of which 45% is being generated by coal – the most carbon intensive fuel we have. Only 19% is being generated by gas. Because each unit of electricity generated by coal emits twice as much carbon dioxide as a unit of electricity generated by gas, this means that right now, 83% of electricity-associated carbon dioxide emissions are coming from coal-fired power stations. If we replaced them with gas we would make a big contribution to reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. This is the real argument for increasing the supply of gas: switching off our coal-fired stations and building new gas stations could be achieved in a decade or so and would be less controversial and have a lower capital cost than switching to nuclear.

Could fracking really be a sensible option? The answer is ‘possibly’ but there is considerable reason to be skeptical. The problem arises because (evaluated over a century), methane is roughly 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse warming gas. Switching from burning coal to burning methane, we can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50%. However, if in mining and delivering methane to the power stations we leak just 1 part in 20 (about 5%) then we save nothing in carbon emissions. And unless we had measured the loss, we might not even know about it. And if we leaked more than 1 part in 20 of the methane, we have actually made things worse.

Can you tell what comes next? Yes, recent measurements of the amount of methane which leaks from US fracking fields reveal that the losses almost completely cancel the benefit of burning gas.

If I was in charge, I would skip the fracking adventure and I would try to drag the UK kicking and screaming into a genuinely sustainable way of living. I think we need an economic and social response to the hazard from carbon emissions on the scale of a war. But I am not in charge. So if we do embark on this fracking adventure then it is essential that we:

  • do not leak methane hither and thither, and
  • that we use the gas to eliminate coal-fired electricity generation.

Otherwise fracking will become the UK’s tar sands disaster.

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10 Responses to “Could fracking be our least worst option?”

  1. Steve Lawless (@Steve_Lawless) Says:

    Lovelock argues that nuclear is the answer pending the development of adequate renewals. He shows that deaths from radiation poisoning are very low in comparison to other energy supplies. I am still concerned about the long term effects of nuclear waste pending fusion but we may not have any long term if we continue as we are. There does need to be a significant drop in standard of living for the west, a reduction in population and a move away from economic growth (that is the hardest one).

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Basically yes. We are in a tough corner and there are no easy answers. I just wish that our political leaders would just show a tiny sign that we are facing a REALLY serious problem – on a par with being at war – and just got started with trying to address the problems. I fear we need a big disaster before politicians will feel empowered to act.

  2. Steve Lawless (@Steve_Lawless) Says:

    http://unews.utah.edu/old/p/112009-1.html

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Steve : Thanks for that link – it took a while to read and digest. I think the article has many good points at its heart it is 100% fundamentally wrong. Why? Because its based on the basic assumption that we have no choice about what we do next. But we do.

      His analogy with a child feeding itself so it grows and needs more food is exactly correct. But children eventually become adults and although it takes a while they figure out that they can’t keep eating like they used to! In other words: things change.

      I will leave it on my desk and see if I can garner the energy to comment further.

      All the best

      Michael

  3. Vanessa Says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for this measured analysis.

    I suspect, sadly, that the methane leakage alone means this will be operating at the disaster end of the spectrum. Scientists for Global Responsibility published an article last autumn citing figures from research on other fracking operations. It suggests total methane leakage, between point of extraction to point of use, to be in the range 3.5 to 6.9%.

    However there’s an additional subtlety, actually an artifact of the measures used. As you say, the warming effects of methane and carbon dioxide are measured over a 100-year period. As methane is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, most of the ‘100-year’ impact for this gas is felt early on – its warming effect is effectively front-loaded. This means it makes an early contribution to (for example) oceans heating up, so preventing them from absorbing as much of the CO2 as they would otherwise have done throughout the rest of that arbitrary 100-year period. The same applies to its early effects on the ice-caps … and perhaps other things.

    So, given methane’s front-end contribution to positive feedback loops, and the fact that the resulting effects do not appear to have been accounted for, it seems that the overall impact from methane is more dangerous than the numbers suggest.

    That SGR article by the way to is 11th from the top in the list here (I haven’t provided a direct link as it’s straight to a PDF).

    All the best
    Vanessa

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Vanessa

      Thanks for that. I think the Scientists for Global Responsibility article is a good summary – frankly better than mine 😦 .

      Last night I had been going to go on about the ‘junkie’ analogy. That we started out the ‘pure stuff’ and we said ‘we could handle it’. But as the addiction has gone on and on and got more and more to be the entire focus of our civilisations efforts – we are prepared to ‘shoot up’ with any old junk. Fracked- tar sands – who cares. JUST GIVE ME A FIX of hydrocarbon. But it was late and I thought maybe I was projecting an overly negative state of mind! Are we really that bad?

      Anyway: All the best

      Michael

      • Vanessa Says:

        Not better, just different :-). And I like your junkie analogy. I actually do think we are that bad – collectively. Individually we might well be willing to change our ways, but so many external forces are against us if we try, that were set in motion decades or centuries ago, that there is almost nowhere to turn. We are locked into an economic, political and cultural Catch 22. In my view anyway. It’s hard to know how to respond to this.

      • protonsforbreakfast Says:

        How to respond? Honesty and courage.

        Every best wish

        Michael

  4. sahmeepee Says:

    Hi Michael,

    I’m not sure about your working out to arrive at a figure of “90% of electricity-associated carbon dioxide emissions … coming from coal-fired power stations”.

    If coal-fired accounts for 45% of our electricity and gas accounts for 19%, then assuming all our remaining emissions (10%) are from gas-fired, we are left with coal-fired producing almost 4 times as much carbon dioxide per unit electricity:

    Coal – 45% share – 90% emissions
    Gas – 19% share – 10% emissions

    If your 2:1 ratio of CO2 emissions from coal:gas are correct and we don’t have any other CO2 sources to consider, I come to the following:

    Coal – 45% share – 82.6% emissions
    Gas – 19% share – 17.4% emissions

    Perhaps I missed something?

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Sam

      You are exactly right. I wrote that late last night and I thought it looked about right and I was just very tired. As penance for my inexactitude I have written a little spreadsheet to check and yes, you are exactly correct. I won’t make >that< mistake again.

      Thanks

      M

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