As pointed out on Twitter by University of Alberta professor Andrew Leach, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has some interesting maps and animations available online showing the development of unconventional gas in the United States.
For example, here is an animation of the development of gas wells in the Barnett Shale between 1981 and 2010.
Renate Christ recently gave a good presentation on climate change and renewable energy (PDF) on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The charts on page 4 and 5 are especially stark. The first shows the huge extent to which the global energy system remains dominated by fossil fuels. The second is a re-affirmation of the chart on this page showing the relative size of different fossil fuel reserves, and showing how reserves of coal dwarf those of oil and gas in terms of how much climate change they can generate. It also shows how large portions of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves are of an unconventional variety, such as shale gas and oil sands crude.
None of these articles makes reference to the importance of cumulative emissions, and the way in which the total quantity of fossil fuels burned is the most important metric for determining how much climate change will occur, as opposed to how much fossil fuel is burned in a particular year.
In some ways, choosing not to pursue unconventional fossil fuels like the oil sands, coal from moutaintop removal mining, and shale gas is imposing a risk on those in the future. It will be up to them to find energy sources capable of powering the kind of lifestyle they want. There is no guarantee that it will be possible to do everything we do now using sustainable forms of energy. In addition to becoming more efficient, they may simply have to make do with less.
That being said, choosing to exploit unconventional fossil fuels is still akin to throwing your child into the deep end of the pool in order to teach them to swim. Instead of being pressed to learn how to use energy more efficiently, develop sustainable energy sources, and perhaps adopt a less energy intensive lifestyle, future generations in a world where we choose to exploit unconventional fossil fuels will be pressed to learn how to deal with dangerous and severe climate change, and all the unpredictable consequences that will accompany it. In addition to that, they will still need to learn how to live without fossil fuels once those last especially dangerous reserves are exhausted.
We cannot guarantee that future generations will be able to enjoy the luxuries that we do, in the form of things like cheap intercontinental travel. What we can do is choose which set of risks an challenges they will confront. It seems far more ethical to leave unconventional fossil fuels buried and challenge them to find alternatives than to burn those fuels and challenge future generations to live with a radically changing climate.
Since taking over the rotating presidency of the European Union, they have vetoed an initiative to tighten the European Union’s 2020 target for greenhouse gas pollution. They are also embracing hydraulic fracturing for unconventional natural gas, with as many as 120 test wells to be drilled by a dozen companies in the next few years.
Both moves tie Europe more closely to fossil fuels, and risk impeding the emergence of a low-carbon economy.
In addition to being the primary constituent of natural gas, methane is itself a powerful greenhouse gas. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why livestock agriculture and landfills contribute to climate change.
As discussed in The New York Times, one reason why the expanded production of natural gas is worrisome from a climatic perspective is that drilling for and extracting gas causes some of it to leak directly into the atmosphere. These are called ‘fugitive emissions’. According to the article, as much as 7.9% of the gas extracted from shale gas wells is released directly into the atmosphere in this way.
Of course, the gas that is put through pipelines and burned for heat or electricity is also problematic from a climate change perspective. One molecule of methane (CH4) combines with two molecules of oxygen (O2) to form one molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) and two molecules of water (H2O). That basically means that for every cubic metre of natural gas that gets burned, a cubic metre of carbon dioxide gets added to the atmosphere.
The article repeatedly quotes Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. He points out several studies that identify the problematic effects of natural gas production on the Earth’s climate, concluding that “[w]hen all is factored together… the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas can be as much as 20 percent greater than, and perhaps twice as high as, coal per unit of energy”.
That certainly raises questions about the idea that natural gas is a clean-burning fuel that can help us deal with climate change.
This seems like the Prisoner’s Dilemma in effect:
The Inuit Premier of Greenland is passionate in defending the need to develop his country’s oil and gas potential – a stance that puts him at odds with Canadian Inuit groups, which have tried to block offshore drilling near their communities. Kuupik Kleist was one of the speakers at a two-day summit of Inuit leaders who met this week to discuss resource development. Mr. Kleist said Wednesday that there will be oil and gas extraction in and around Greenland and the Inuit want to dictate its terms.
Here is what he said in response to questions from reporters; the questions have been edited and the answers trimmed.
Many Inuit and environmentalists in Nunavut argue that any oil and gas exploration could damage a fragile ecosystem. How do you respond to those concerns?
We have a co-operation with the Canadian government on the issue of protection of the environment [as it relates to] the oil industry. And we have that co-operation because of the Canadian experience, which we don’t have . . . both within the mineral sector and within the oil industry for years. And what we’re looking at is to gain from the experiences, not only from Canada but also from Norway, for instance, which is regarded as an upscale developer of technology. I have had a dialogue with the Minister for the Environment in Canada who was, in the outset, very concerned about the exploratory drillings off the Greenland west coast. What happened during our dialogue was that now Canadian employees are on the drilling sites off the west coast of Greenland to learn about security.
If you can’t stop other people from doing the wrong thing, you might as well do it yourself, even if the results are going to be harmful to you in the long term.
There is an interesting debate ongoing on The Economist‘s website:
This house believes that natural gas will do more than renewables to limit the world’s carbon emissions.
It’s possible that burning gas could do more good than harm, but only in a rather special set of circumstances. The gas would have to be displacing even dirtier forms of energy – such as coal – and do so without delaying the global transition to a zero-carbon economy.
Of course, switching to gas isn’t always motivated by environmental concerns.
Also, while gas might be a preferable alternative to coal in the short-term, it is ultimately an exhaustible resource. In order to become sustainable, the global economy must develop a renewable energy basis for itself.
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research recently released a report on the climatic impacts of shale gas, a type of unconventional fossil fuel. They feel that just the risk of water contamination is enough to justify a moratorium, going on to say that the use of shale gas risks delaying the vital transition to a low-carbon global society.
The British Department of Energy and Climate Change is being dismissive of the report.