Tuesday 22 October 2013

Shale, renewables, and the importance of a carbon price

There are those who claim that exploiting shale gas will lead irrecoverably to climate change. Then there are others who have looked at what has happened in the US so far - where abundant gas has gone hand-in-hand with a renewables boom, displacing coal from the electricity mix and reducing US CO2 emissions, and argue that shale will be beneficial from a climate change perspective.

To know which is more likely to be the case, one has to be able to see into the future. Unless you have a particularly effective crystal ball, we do this by constructing economic models to try to predict how changes in supply, price and legislation will affect future economies.

I am not an economic modeller, but I know that they can get pretty complicated. Moreover, I know enough about modelling more generally to know that trusting the results from a single model can be risky - for added certainty you are best-off looking at multiple models and seeing if they all give you the same answer.

For this reason, a new study released by the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum is of particular interest. They have modelled the future effects of shale gas development on US, looking at a number of potential impacts, in particular changes in greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, rather than just use one model, they have collated together the results from 7 different models and modelling teams.

Each model and team was asked to simulate a range of potential scenarios, including:
  1. Reference scenario - the prediction for the future follwing business as usual
  2. Low shale - a scenario with significantly reduced shale gas production - down 50% from the reference case
  3. High shale - a scenario with significantly increase shale gas production - up 50% from the reference case
  4. High shale, high growth - a scenario that includes the high shale scenario, with the added bonus that economic activity receives a boost from shale development, boosting annual growth by 0.5%
  5. Carbon price - a scenario where the government places a price on carbon ($25 per tonne) to try to encourage emissions reductions. Otherwise follows the reference economic growth and shale development
  6. Carbon price and shale - we have the same shale gas boom (high shale), but the government puts the carbon price in place
The graph below shows the results of the models in terms of CO2 emissions, comparing emissions in 2010 with predicted emissions in 2050. Each group of columns is the results from one of the models, while each individual column represents a particular scenario as listed above.

The first thing to note is that there are big differences in some of the absolute values between models - this is why trusting to one model alone can be a bad idea. However, the trends between the different scenarios are generally consistent between models, and that is the important result.

The most notable observation is the lack of impact of shale development on CO2 emissions, either in the positive or negative sense. Whether we follow the reference case; or boost shale gas production significantly; or restrict shale gas production significantly, the resulting CO2 emissions by 2050 will be little different. Even if shale gas provides a significant economic boost relative to the reference case (the shale growth scenario), CO2 emissions will be little different.

There are two scenarios that achieve significant reductions in emissions, and these are ones where a carbon price of $25 is imposed. If this carbon price is created, models predict a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions, regardless of whether shale gas development continues as business as usual, or whether we see significant increases in shale production (shale carbon). 

So, what is the moral of this story? It appears that whether shale gas is developed extensively, or is severely restricted, has little impact on CO2 emissions. To really make an impact, we need to put a price on emitting CO2 to the atmosphere. If climate change concerns you, chaining yourself to the front of a shale drilling site is a waste of time. This is time that could have been better spent trying to persuade government to introduce a carbon tax (or cap-and-trade, or an emissions trading scheme, or whatever your preferred method of pricing CO2 might be). I should add that it is particularly depressing when it is an elected member of parliament is the chain-ee, who's time really could be better spent arguing for a carbon price.

I've linked to this paper before, but there are those who argue that a CO2 price would actually be in the interests of natural gas companies (as it would favour gas over coal in the power sector, and gas over oil in the transport sector), and that harnessing the lobbying power of large and profitable gas companies might be the best way to go about gaining governmental acceptance for it. That certainly seems like a better use of time than chaining oneself to gate in Sussex.

Acknowledgements: A tip of the hat to Grant McDermott for pointing out this study to me - he discusses it at his blog here.

Friday 4 October 2013

The role of experts vs interest groups when science-related issues are dicussed in the media

A recent piece in the Guardian has criticised the BBC over its coverage of climate change issues, and in particular the release of the latest IPCC report. In the interests of so-called "editorial balance", there has a tendency to include non-specialists, so-called 'climate deniers' (not a term I'm particularly fond of, given its connotations, despite being a 'climate-believer' myself).

It was a complaint that immediately stuck me as ironic coming from the Guardian, given much of its recent reporting about shale gas. Particular Guardian highlights include letting Lucy Mangan, a lifestyle columnist, free reign make up whatever she liked about shale development, including, my particular favourite, the claim that the UK has no history of onshore operations, which must have come as a surprise to the operators of Wytch Farm (the largest onshore field in the EU) and the other 40 or so existing onshore oil and gas fields.

Similarly flawed was their piece accusing an operator of gagging a family claiming that their water had been impacted by drilling, while failing to mention that the Pennsylvania DEP had been in to test the water, and had found no evidence of any drilling-related contamination.

Meanwhile Andrew Rawnsley felt sufficiently geologically-qualified to claim that UK shales were unlikely to be profitable because they were "typically among the thinnest" of Europe, when in fact at over 6,000 feet the Bowland shale is probably the thickest shale deposit found anywhere to date.

These are the headline mistakes, but of course every piece on shale must be accompanied by a statement from a protest group detailing imminent environmental catastrophe, without ever being asked to provide any evidence or justification of any kind. Certainly there's been no attempt to highlight the difference between ill-informed shale hype (and there is plenty of this from both sides of the debate) and expert scientific opinion as expressed, for example, by the Royal Society report, by the BGS, or perhaps even from John Hanger, one-time Pennsylvania environmental chief (whose 'Facts of the Day' blog is well worth a read).  

There are many areas of modern life where science intersects with social and political viewpoints (global warming, GM food, nuclear power, vaccinations, creationism, all spring to mind). At this point I want to move my discussion away from shale gas specifically to treat the subject of expert representation in the media more generally.

With unsurprising regularity, wherever the science agrees with a particular viewpoint you'll see protagonists urging: "let the scientists speak - don't let the unscientific opponents be given equal footing to the actual experts", only to find that when the boot is on the other foot over a different issue, suddenly having balance in the debate is crucial: interested parties, even if not experts, should be given a platform to express their views.

I'm not sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, the scientist in me feels that on every issue we should ensure that it is the experts that are given prime time in the debate, and that editors/producers must make sure to differentiate what is evidence based from what is (socio-)politically motivated. We can see direct examples where the failure to do so leads directly to harm (the MMR scare and resulting South Wales measles outbreak springs most immediately to mind).

Sadly however, I suspect that many editors lack the expertise needed to do this, having neither the ability nor inclination to cross-examine their sources to differentiate expertise from BS. Moreover, we should not be insensitive to the fact that many of these issues provoke very strong emotions some sections of the non-expert general public, who will come to be represented by partisan organisations and spokespeople. Is there a case to be made that, if a certain view is held by a significant portion of the population, then it is right that the media provide air-time to that view-point, even if misinformed?

For me it's a difficult question, a difficult balance to be found. Comments and thoughts welcome in the comment section as always.

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Spot the Wells Part II: Downtown LA

I've played this game with you before but it's time for another go. Here's an aerial image of the Beverly Hills area of LA. Can you spot 50 oil wells?

Spot them? Thought not? How about if I zoom in a little?

If you've got sharp eyes, you might just be able to spot them now, but maybe not. Just in case, I'll zoom in one more time:

You should be able to see them now - nestled in behind the Beverly Center Shopping Mall. If you're still not sure, check out google maps here. As we did for the Forth Worth Airport wells, let's go to street view and see what we can see (again, I recommend that you go to google maps and do this for yourself):

On the occasion of this image, there is a drilling rig on site (the frame tower you can see). These are temporary structures present only while the well is drilled. As for anything else, all you can see is the wall shielding the pipes and tanks from view, the whole site dominated completely by the shopping mall.

Approx. 50 wells have been drilled from this pad, which is targeting a tight oil reservoir (much like at Balcombe, as I'm sure we're all aware). All have been hydraulically stimulated (i.e. fracked). It's right that we discuss the potential surface impacts of shale gas development in the UK. But we should always bear in mind what can be done to ensure that the impact is minimised.

This website provides some neat examples of other drilling pads discretely dotted around downtown LA. According to this site (I've not been able to find verify this anywhere), the Beverly Center pad produces 500,000 barrels of oil a year. At a price of approx. $100/barrel, that's worth $50,000,000 dollars per year. As per the wells at Fort Worth Airport, I struggle to think of any other economic activity where you can get as much 'buck' for as little footprint.