Category Archives: Unconventional gas

The troublesome abundance of gas

Natural gas is mostly methane. When you burn methane in air, it produces carbon dioxide and water. Combine one molecule of methane (CH4) with two molecules of oxygen (O2) and you get one molecule of CO2 and two of water. The inescapable consequence of this is that when we burn natural gas and release the combustion products into the atmosphere, we warm the climate. The equation couldn’t be more simple.

The world as a whole is on track to blow right past the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and push things to the point where dangerous climate change will almost certainly happen. As a result, every new gas find is a blow to humanity as a whole.

Of course, it isn’t seen that way by the people who find the gas. Off the coast of Israel, the recently discovered Leviathan field may contain 453 billion cubic metres of climate-warming gas. Extracting and selling it will be profitable for the firms and governments involved, but it will probably be counterproductive for humanity as a whole. Whatever is gained today through the use of that energy will be lost in the future, when we need to deal with the consequences of the extra warming.

People sometimes celebrate the increased use of natural gas as a climate change solution, since you can get more electricity for each unit of climate change produced by burning natural gas than you can by burning coal. What this misses is how long it takes for any greenhouse gases we add to the atmosphere to come out. Every unit of fossil fuel we burn is a problem, and each new fossil fuel discovery risks pushing back the day when we move to safer forms of energy.

Keepin’ Carbon Underground

For the last 10,000 years during which human civilization has emerged, the planet has had a relatively stable climate. Carbon embedded in coal, oil and gas has been a major establishing feature of the climate around the world.

Since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has been burning those fuels at ever-increasing rates – rapidly returning that carbon to the atmosphere. As a result, we’re on track to heat up the planet by more than 5°C by 2100. That is far beyond the 2°C threshold of warming that scientists and policy-makers have widely accepted as ‘dangerous‘.

The solution to human-induced climate change is to leave most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels underground. That way, the carbon they contain will be kept in a place where it doesn’t affect the climate. To accomplish that, we are going to need to find alternative sources of energy. Nuclear fission is one of the temporary bridging options. However it has its own issues: it has non-renewable fuel and waste and proliferation problems. Ultimately, though, if humanity wants to power itself in a way that can be perpetuated forever and which does not threaten the climate, we’re going to need to draw the energy we need from renewable sources: hydroelectricity, solar power, wind, tidal, geothermal, and so on.

Given how much it would transform our world – and how many human lives that would harm – we need to keep most of the carbon still locked in fossil fuels underground.

Shale gas in Canada

Here is some recent news coverage on shale gas:

In Quebec, it’s drill, bébé, drill
Kalli Anderson

The ongoing controversy over the exploitation of shale gas deposits in Quebec came to a head last week. On Tuesday, the prominent environmental organization Équiterre released a report that claimed developing a shale gas industry would make it difficult for Quebec to meet it’s existing greenhouse-gas reduction targets. Équiterre called on the province to institute a moratorium on further exploration projects until it concludes comprehensive studies of the potential environmental, health and economic impacts of shale gas exploitation.

Gaz de schiste au Québec – Fin de la récréation : le gouvernement et l’industrie doivent faire leurs devoirs
Publié le 14 sept. 2010

Équiterre a rendu public aujourd’hui une analyse préliminaire du dossier de l’exploration et l’exploitation des gaz de schiste au Québec. L’analyse conclut entre autres que le développement de cette filière risque fort de compromettre l’atteinte des objectifs du gouvernement dans le dossier des changements climatiques et juge faible le potentiel de substitution du mazout et du charbon par le gaz naturel. L’analyse estime de manière conservatrice que l’industrie des gaz de schiste pourrait ajouter au moins 1,9 Mt de gaz à effet de serre (GES) au bilan du Québec, soit 12% de l’objectif de réduction fixé par le gouvernement à l’horizon 2020, presque l’équivalent de ce qu’aurait émis la centrale thermique du Suroît.

Canada not ready for shale gas boom
Shawn McCarthy

Canada’s fledgling shale gas industry faces a growing clamour for tighter regulations and greater protection of local water sources amid fears that aggressive drilling techniques carry a heavy environmental cost.

While the threat to groundwater posed by this kind of unconventional gas extraction is definitely a concern, the major reason to worry about the exploitation of unconventional oil and gas reserves is the consequences doing so will have on the climate. Rather than perpetuating our fossil fuel dependence – while chasing fuels that are ever-more dangerous and expensive – we should be shifting our focus to renewable and zero-carbon options.

Government mysteriously cancels investigation into oil sands environment impact

Canwest News Services has learned:

Federal politicians from the government and opposition benches have mysteriously cancelled an 18-month investigation into oilsands pollution in water and opted to destroy draft copies of their final report.

I’m not going to go over details as to why the oil sands are an environmental disaster, or why they need to be shut down in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Instead, I want to point out that the destruction of this report simply constitutes a flagrant disregard for the public good by the current administration – and that this absolutely should be read as a sign of extreme corruption between business and the federal government. Canadian people’s interests are not served by covering up information about the environmental effects of the oil sands. The only interests served by avoiding decreases in the marketability of oil sands which could result from the publication of this report are those connected with short term business profit.

If anyone is in possession of the “ripped up” report (what, was it made on a typewriter?) is absolutely morally required to leak the document. No oath, no promise of secrecy overrides the democratic duty of a citizen expose extreme corruption and collusion.

Don’t Ignite the Lignite

Quite unintentionally, deficiencies in the quality of my video camera and the lighting of the establishment where this was filmed have made this video more anonymous than I planned. It has a bit of a ‘witness protection program’ vibe. My apologies about the annoying feedback in the audio.

At the same time, it lays out my current views on climate change and how to deal with it in just five minutes:

Obviously, it requires many simplifications to put that amount of information into a five minute movie. Even so, I think it is a fair reflection of my current thoughts, at least insofar as I would format them for an event of this type.

It would be very interesting to know what I am wrong about.

It would also be interesting to know which (if any) messages seem to be well conveyed.

The slides and speaking notes are also available:

Hydraulic fracturing and unconventional gas

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are changing the natural gas industry, by enabling the exploitation of reserves that were previously inaccessible, such as the large reserves of shale gas in North America:

Shale and other reservoirs once considered unexploitable (coal-bed methane and “tight gas”) now meet half the country’s demand. New shale prospects are sprinkled across North America, from Texas to British Columbia. One authority says supplies will last 100 years; many think that is conservative. In 2008 Russia was the world’s biggest gas producer; last year, with output of more than 600 billion cubic metres, America probably overhauled it. North American gas prices have slumped from more than $13 per million British thermal units in mid-2008 to less than $5. The “unconventional”—tricky and expensive, in the language of the oil industry—has become conventional.

All of this is doubly problematic from a climatic perspective. Firstly, as hydraulic fracturing spreads worldwide, the total quantity of gas extracted and burned will rise, increasing the total amount of climate change experienced by future generations. Secondly, increased access to gas will perpetuate fossil fuel dependency, delaying the process of transitioning to the use of renewable and zero-carbon forms of energy.

Some people argue that all this gas is actually going to help with climate change mitigation efforts, because people will burn it for electricity in place of coal. In response to this argument, it seems sensible to point out that what really matters are the total cumulative emissions of humanity – not the amount of greenhouse gases released in any particular year. If we burn this gas and then go on to burn that same coal later, we will be in a worse position than if we had never gained access to the gas. The one way in which these gas reserves could conceivably help with efforts to deal with climate change is if they displace coal in the short term, and then legislation finally comes through to push the national economies in question away from the use of coal forever.

Of course, accomplishing that will be an incredibly difficult feat, given the entrenched interests involved. As such, it seems far more sensible to protest any new extraction or use of coal and unconventional oil and gas, while simultaneously pushing for legislation that will finally put a price on greenhouse gas emissions, and that will treat the risks associated with climate change appropriately by, among other things, putting a moratorium on coal use.