Natural Gas: A Green Bridge to Hell

Not my title, but one that suits. Naomi Oreskes is known to me from the brilliant Merchants of Doubt on the truth-management practices “from tobacco to global warming.”

I’ve had this realization that the same folks behind horizontal fracturing’s economics, “science” and the proliferation of fracked wells being forced on landscapes and communities across the east are the same folks who bought their own scientists who told us cigarettes were really good for us.

The current natural gas truth-spinners are the same people who took the tops off mountains and put them into creeks that had names, where people with names once lived normal lives.

The proposed MV pipeline that Floyd County would suffer is part of a legacy. We’re focused, rightly, on the symptom of that legacy that might change the lives of many of us, not for the better.

But we need to be mindful of the spin in this “green bridge” so that we don’t let our neighbors buy any snake oil.

Rather a lot of Diigo annotations from Green Bridge to Hell pulled from the longer TomGram article are posted below:

When looked at in a clear-eyed way, natural gas isn’t going to turn out to be the fossil-fuel equivalent of a wonder drug that will cure the latest climate disease. Quite the opposite: its exploitation will actually increase the global use of fossil fuels and pump more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, while possibly suppressing the development of actual renewable alternatives.
Different studies of this sort tend to yield quite different results with a high margin for error, but many conclude that when natural gas replaces petroleum in transportation or heating oil in homes, the greenhouse gas benefits are slim to none.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were 342,000 gas wells in the United States in 2000; by 2010, there were over 510,000, and nearly all of this increase was driven by shale-gas development — that is, by fracking. This represents a huge increase in the potential pathways for methane leakage directly into the atmosphere. (It also represents a huge increase in potential sources of groundwater contamination, but that’s a subject for another post.)

There have been enormous disagreements among scientists and industry representatives over methane leakage rates, but experts calculate that leakage must be kept below 3% for gas to represent an improvement over coal in electricity generation, and below 1% for gas to improve over diesel and gasoline in transportation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently estimates average leakage rates at 1.4%, but quite a few experts dispute that figure. One study published in 2013, based on atmospheric measurements over gas fields in Utah, found leakage rates as high as 6%-11%.

But recently the Wall Street Journal reported that state officials in North Dakota would be pressing for new regulations because flaring rates there are running around 30%. In the month of April alone, $50 million dollars of natural gas was burned off, completely wasted. The article was discussing shale oil wells, not shale gas ones, but it suggests that, when it comes to controlling flaring, there’s evidence the store is not being adequately minded. (At present, there are no federal regulations at all on flaring.) As long as gas is cheap, the economic incentives to avoid waste are obviously insufficient.

Meanwhile, global fossil fuel production and consumption are rising. A recent article by the business editor of the British Telegraph describes a frenzy of fossil fuel production that may be leading to a new financial bubble. The huge increase in natural gas production is, in reality, helping to keep the price of such energy lower, discouraging efficiency and making it more difficult for renewables to compete.

We’ve all heard about the Keystone XL Pipeline through which Canada proposes to ship oil from the Alberta tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and from there to the rest of the world. Few people, however, are aware that the U.S. has also become a net exporter of coal and is poised to become a gas exporter as well. Gas imports have fallen steadily since 2007, while exports have risen, and several U.S. gas companies are actively seeking federal and state approvals for the building of expanded gas export facilities.

All of the available scientific evidence suggests that greenhouse gas emissions must peak relatively soon and then fall dramatically over the next 50 years, if not sooner, if we are to avoid the most damaging and disruptive aspects of climate change. Yet we are building, or contemplating building, pipelines and export facilities that will contribute to increased fossil fuel use around the globe, ensuring further increases in emissions during the crucial period when they need to be dramatically decreasing.

Certain forms of infrastructure also effectively preclude others. Once you have built a city, you can’t use the same land for agriculture. Historians call this the “infrastructure trap.” The aggressive development of natural gas, not to mention tar sands, and oil in the melting Arctic, threaten to trap us into a commitment to fossil fuels that may be impossible to escape before it is too late. Animals are lured into traps by the promise of food. Is the idea of short-term cuts in greenhouse gas emissions luring us into the trap of long-term failure?

The fossil fuel industry and their allies have spent the past 20 years attacking environmentalists and climate scientists as extremists, alarmists, and hysterics. Their publicists have portrayed them as hair-shirt wearing, socialist watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) who relish suffering, kill jobs, and want everyone to freeze in the dark. Extremists do exist in the environmental movement as everywhere else, but they represent a tiny faction of the community of people concerned about climate change, and they are virtually nonexistent in the scientific community. (Put it this way: if there is a hair-shirt wearing climate scientist, I have not met her.)

Sometimes you can fight fire with fire, but the evidence suggests that this isn’t one of those times. Under current conditions, the increased availability and decreased price of natural gas are likely to lead to an increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Preliminary data from 2013 suggest that that is already occurring. And global emissions are, of course, continuing to increase as well.

Natural gas is not the bridge to clean energy; it’s the road to more climate change.