Sunday, 29 September 2013
New study on methane emission from shale wells, and a comment on the role of environmental NGOs
A new paper released in PNAS, using measurements from 500 shale wells, shows very low methane leakage rates (~0.43% of total produced volume). This is significant because it has been suggested that high methane leakage rates could counter the greenhouse benefits of the 50% CO2 reduction you get from switching from coal to gas.
Those who have been following this debate for a while will know that this issue has been put to bed a while ago, with numerous studies contradicting the infamous, and oft-cited, Howarth study (which, to re-iterate, was based purely on estimates and models, and no actual measurements). I've covered this before here, and NoHotAir has covered the issue quite succinctly here. Nevertheless, this new study is probably the most comprehensive yet, with numerous measurements from each stage of the well completion process, and it is reassuring to see that it has come to similar conclusions to prior studies that also show the significant climate benefits of switching from coal to gas.
The details of the study has been widely reported, so I won't waste too much ink on it here, instead I'll let you read some links here and here.
The study was funded by a collaboration between 9 drilling companies and the Environmental Defence Fund, and it is on this aspect that I'd like to dwell for the remainder of this post.
The EDF's policy towards natural gas is outlined here. Like any environmental organisation, they're not wildly in favour of gas production, and would prefer to see an increase in renewable energy capacity. However, they appreciate the role of natural gas in a diverse energy portfolio. That is, of course, so long as it is extracted safely, and so long as fugitive methane emissions do not impact the benefits of burning gas over coal.
To ensure that this is the case, they are working in collaboration with drilling companies. Through this collaboration, they gain direct access to drill sites in order to take the kind of measurements necessary for the kind of studies described above. I would describe this as a mature, practical approach, bringing industry, scientists and environmentalists to the same table to talk about what can be done to protect the environment.
This can be contrasted with the efforts made thus far by UK environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, FOE and the Green Party, which could be described as like a child having a tantrum, screaming "No No No", No attempt to discuss how shale gas extraction could be made as safe as possible, no attempt to explore the potential to displace coal generation. Just say no.
I simply cannot see how chaining yourself to a fence outside a drilling site and getting arrested is a more productive use of time than getting around the table with some scientists. Indeed, why not use a small part of Greenpeace's £200 million annual turnover to fund a few UK academics to do some studies? If you believe, as these groups do, that shale gas extraction is fundamentally unsafe, why would you not be rushing to put some funding together to find the scientific proof that this is so.
I'll leave you with some similar comments from a blogger from Scientific American, who puts across similar thoughts far more succinctly than I.