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.


  1. Sadly the cheap shot is always to accuse those funded or comissioned by a commercial organisation of bias. It is not in the interests of either academics or consultants to be so led. The end result would be a loss of business as credibility would be damaged. Indeed for those who are members of professsional bodies it would be against the code of conduct which they have committed to following.

  2. Why do scientific research when you can refer to Josh Fox's works.

  3. Perhaps given the amazing success / safety record of fracking operations in Lancashire [LOL] you should be asking yourself how you and your friends are going to prove fracking is fundamentally safe James?

    As regards 29/9 10:40 - There is obviously a long term problem with credibility for frackademia, but we live in a world of short term goals - the obsession with fracking being just one clear example. Funding or reputation. It must be a hard choice on occasion.

    1. It's fairly obvious really: firstly we can look at data from existing UK onshore operations to see whether regulations are sufficient to ensure surface management of fluids (by far the biggest risk in my opinion) and well-bore integrity. These issues are identical whether you are considering a shale well or a conventional well, and the UK onshore industry has an excellent record in this regard - for example, the existing onshore industry processes 70 million barrels of produced fluids per year.

      Secondly, we can look to the USA, where extensive studies are being conducted into the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Again, these are not revealing large scale issues. That's not to say there have been zero impacts - there have been incidents of poor surface fluid management, particularly the use of open pits to store waste fluids, which have a high risk of either the lining tearing, or of overtopping during storms (such pits are not allowed in the UK) and some examples of poor casing leading to methane migration (Dimock being the headline example). However, when viewed in the context of millions of frack stages completed, these are a rare handful of isolated incidents of bad practice. And poor practice can be remediated. The company involved at Dimock were fined heavily and forced to repair their wells - methane contamination levels have now returned below acceptable environmental minima.

      With regard to the Blackpool operations thus far: like any subsurface operation (coal mining, conventional oil/gas, geothermal, hydroelectric) there is a small risk of producing earthquakes. Such events, like those at Blackpool, are too small to cause damage, but can be felt by people at the surface. Again, we can look to the US example, where we see millions of frack stages that have not produced detectable seismic activity.

      Regardless, an extensive seismic monitoring program has now been mandated by DECC to ensure that there is no repeat of this. There has been no suggestion of water or air contamination during operations. Nevertheless the BGS are conducting baseline water quality measurements throughout potential shale areas, so that any impacts can be quickly identified. In addition, it is expected that operators will conduct water quality assessments at each site before and after operations.

      So there's plenty of scientific data around to look at concerning potential impacts of shale development. Which brings me back to my original question, if you are not happy with existing studies, why are environmental organisations not funding scientific studies into shale development?

  4. Studying isn't fun, let's be honest here. You just have to believe it's fun. You can do this by taking your mind off everything else happening in your life while you're studying. Thanks for sharing the useful information.