Monday, 18 June 2012

James Lovelock on shale gas

Really interesting interview with James Lovelock by the Guardian this weekend:

Summary here and fuller transcript here

For those living under stones, James Lovelock is a renowned environmental scientist, famous for the Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the earth and its biosphere many of the features of a living organism, such as internal regulation of temperature and chemical composition. His work in detecting the increase in atmospheric CFCs that created the hole in the ozone layer was also crucially important.

The interview covers a range of topics, but as this blog is about shale gas and fracking, I'll obviously focus on these parts. Here are the most relevant parts of the transcript:
Gas is almost a give-away in the US at the moment. They've gone for fracking in a big way. This is what makes me very cross with the greens for trying to knock it: the amount of CO2 produced by burning gas in a good turbine gives you 60% efficiency. In a coal-fired power station, it is 30% per unit of fuel. So you get a two-to-one gain there straight away. The next two-to-one gain you get is that methane has only got half its energy in the carbon, the other half is in the hydrogen, so there's a four-to-one gain in CO2 output from the same amount of electricity by burning methane. Let's be pragmatic and sensible and get Britain to switch everything to methane. We should be going mad on it. The fear of nuclear is now too great after Fukushima and the cost of building new build plants is very expensive and impractical. And it takes a long time to get them running. It is very obvious in America that fracking took almost no time at all to get going. It happened without any debate whatsoever. Suddenly you found there was this abundant fuel source. There's only a finite amount of it [in the UK] so before it runs out we should really be thinking sensibly about what to do next. We rushed into renewable energy without any thought. The schemes are largely hopelessly inefficient and unpleasant. I personally can't stand windmills at any price. Hydro, biomass, solar, etc, have all got great promise, but they're not available tomorrow, or even in 10 years.
The most sensible thing is nuclear, but I'm afraid the great bulk of people are not going to have it after Fukushima. They think nuclear actually caused the disaster. It's so bizarre that's it's almost unbelievable to a scientist, but they do. They conflate the two together. But maybe we've got enough shale [gas] under Britain. There's certainly lots of it. Now, that's not the complete answer, but it will carry us on for the next 20-30 years. Fracking buys us some time and we can learn to adapt.
It's clear that Lovelock is on board with the fact that, if we're serious about cutting CO2 emissions, replacing coal-fired power plants with shale-gas-fired plants is an excellent way of quickly reducing CO2 emissions. Nuclear would be too, but it takes a long time to build new plant. The risks of all out renewables and abandoning all base-load generation capacity are made clear by Germany's post-Fukushima example of shutting down all nuclear power:
Germany is a great country and has always been a natural leader of Europe, and so many great ideas, music, art, etc, come out of it, but they have this fatal flaw that they always fall for an ideologue, and Europe has suffered intensely from the last two episodes of that. It looks to me as if the green ideas they have picked up now could be just as damaging. They are burning lignite now to try to make up for switching off nuclear.
(lignite is a low-grade form of coal - very dirty and polluting)

Finally, I find his ideas about both ultra-Greens and Tea-party-ers as becoming quasi-religious really interesting.
It's just the way the humans are that if there's a cause of some sort, a religion starts forming around it. It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion. I don't think people have noticed that, but it's got all the sort of terms that religions use. The greens use guilt. You can't win people round by saying they are guilty for putting CO2 in the air
Certainly, you only have to scroll into the comments section to note the baying crowd calling to burn the heretic who dares praise shale gas as a potential solution. Certain ideas, once out there, are clung to with what can only be described as religious fervour, regardless of the evidence.

For instance, I still regularly come across the claim:
 Companies are keeping secret the chemicals they're putting down the wells. Why are they kept secret? What have they got to hide? It must be a big conspiracy....
despite the existence of this website, where you can find details of every chemical put down every well in the US.

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