Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Beyond Churnalism

Sometimes the press office puts out a good release,

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2), Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well -- up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production. . . .

He noted that the hydraulic fracturing process lends itself to more leakage because it takes more time to drill the well, requires more venting and produces more flowback waste, he said.

"A lot of the data we used are really low quality, but I'm confident they are the best available," Howarth said. "We want to go out into the Marcellus Shale and do micrometeorological fluxes of methane at the time of venting and get a real number on this, which has never been done. We're optimistic we can get funding and do that over the next year."

"We've tried to be conservative all along; we're not trying to be hyperbolic in our statements," Ingraffea said.

"We do not intend for you to accept what we've reported on today as the definitive scientific study in regards to this question. It's clearly not," he added. "What we're hoping to do with this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before. In my opinion, corporate business plans superseded national energy strategy."

and then the churnalists get to it. On the other side of the sausage grinder here is a lovely example of the perversity argument from Eve Troeh on Marketplace (NPR)
On TV, natural gas gets sold as pristine energy.

Robert Howarth: But that of course is only part of the greenhouse gas footprint.

Cornell University professor Robert Howarth. His new study is the first to quantify the whole carbon footprint for natural gas. He found it's more Bigfoot than Bambi. Because when you crack shale to get to the clean-burning fuel, out comes "methane" -- another greenhouse gas. He says that's worse than burning coal.

And, of course, not to be caught in the rush, Friend Kloor jumps in at his new day job
Maybe, but that natural gas bridge might not be as sturdy as previously thought, according to a Cornell University study in the upcoming May issue of Climatic Change Letters. Cornell ecologist Robert Howarth, a lead author of the study, says in a university release that methane ( a potent global warming gas) leakage from a controversial drilling method (known as fracking) offsets the lesser carbon emissions that makes makes natural gas more attractive in comparison other fossil fuels:
You know, who would have guessed that natural gas is mostly methane. Eli told the bunnies that you just have to taste the blather to spot the rejectionists. Time for the Coven to call another blogger ethics panel.

Oh yeah, in case anyone cares, leakage from natural gas pipelines contributes strongly to methane emissions and atmospheric methane is degraded to CO2 in ~10 years. Let us not talk about the cows. This is a family blog.


Steve Bloom said...

Well, IIRC it's called natural gas since it's not quite 100% methane, and maybe also to distinguish it from the CO-laced "town gas" of old, but I suppose that just begs the substantive question.

This episode dredges up an old memory, which is that it was another Cornell ecologist, David Pimentel, who first exposed the seamy underside of corn ethanol.

Pinko Punko said...

Natural gas is TOTALLY different, it is CLEAN BURNING, as it... wait what?

Good ol' Wikipedia:

Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it must undergo processing to remove almost all materials other than methane.

Double K does this for a living? Good times.

Michael Tobis said...

The impact of a mol of methane integrated over time is conventionally considered to be 20 times that of a unit of CO2, right? That's what GWP means. The way you integrate over time matters. On a very long time scale, the methane only slightly worse than the CO2 it quickly turns into. But in the short run it makes matters worse.

Admittedly, the quantity to be compared is leaked methane from methane fracking vs leaked methane from other fossil fuels per unit of delivered product. The other fuels also probably leak methane during production. But the whole process is about taking non-porous rock and making it porous by mechanical disturbance. It seems likely that a fair amount of methane will find its way out other than through the straw. Some of this process may be sufficiently long-lived to persist after the production but short-lived enough to constitute a significant methane flux.

I'm not really sure what Eli is grumbling about.

CapitalClimate said...

According to them thar Texicans:

"Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, but may also contain ethane, propane and heavier hydrocarbons. Small quantities of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sulfur compounds, and water may also be found in natural gas. The Figure 5 provides a typical natural gas composition."

Fig. 5: http://www.beg.utexas.edu/energyecon/images/LNG_figure05.jpg

Lars Karlsson said...

Joe Romm at Climate Progress weighs in.

Andy S said...

This blog has some interesting comments on life cycle impacts of shale gas.


To nit-pick mt's comment above, fracking increases permeability, not porosity.

EliRabett said...

MT, take a look at that first sentence in the press release. Now imagine that, like most people, you did not know that methane is the major component of natural gas (which btw cap, varies by composition more strongly than the picture shows) as it comes out of the ground. Now go read the two others

Arthur said...

Off the complaints topic here, I'm wondering if some extra methane might be a *good* thing for the politics of the issue. I.e. it's more a short-term threat than a long-term one, so it brings impacts sooner, but (if replacing CO2) delays the worse long-term ones. Therefore it's likely to enhance the overall desire for action. Seems like a good idea to me.

Arthur said...

Back to the complaints topic again - journalists don't feel it's their job to "explain" anything that's in the "sphere of consensus". Even more so now that everything's in wikipedia :)

When I first returned to the US after growing up in Canada, I was immensely puzzled by news reports everywhere about "GOP". What was this "GOP" thing, and what did it have to do with the two main parties in the US? It took a few years of mild puzzlement before I discovered what it stood for, and I still have no idea why it's used as a nickname the Republican party.

Not their job. Their job is to entertain, not inform. Teachers and professors have a hard time understanding the mentality.

Marlowe Johnson said...

@Steve Bloom

Actually Pimental's LCA work on ethanol is piss poor. He (and Patzek) engage in the kind of cherry picking/use of old data that we normally only see from the "no warming since 98'" crowd...

see here for a nice graphic and here for the details.

I doubt that Horwath's analysis suffers from the same defects as Pimentel's but I'll reserve judgement until I see a few more studies to see how it holds up...

dhogaza said...


GOP stands for the "Grand Old Party".

"The nickname of the Republican Party [Grand Old Party] didn't get attached to it until 1888. Previously, the nickname had been used by Southern Democrats. After the Republicans won back the Presidency and Congress for the first time since the Grant administration, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed: "Let us be thankful that under the rule of the Grand Old Party ... these United States will resume the onward and upward march which the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884 partially arrested."

Anonymous said...

Arthur said: "Back to the complaints topic again - journalists don't feel it's their job to "explain" anything that's in the "sphere of consensus".
"Not their job. Their job is to entertain, not inform."

Which brings items like this.

Meanwhile while running to google scholar on the ethanol question, don't forget good old Pubmed:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=ethanol biofuel

and don't neglect water as in item 4: Water footprint of u.s. Transportation fuels.

Pete Dunkelberg

Arthur said...

Yes, well, I figured out pretty quickly that it stood for Republican. But it was still many years before I heard what the initials stood for. And it's only just now that I've learned where the name came from (thanks).

But here's the thing: have you *ever* seen a US news media report that used the term GOP explain it? They don't think it's their job. If you don't understand what the codes and words they use mean, well, just enjoy the ride, they don't really care to explain it. You're just supposed to know that stuff. Or not know it. You're not supposed to care.

Same with methane and natural gas. You're not supposed to care. What does it matter? :)

dhogaza said...

Well, they also don't tell you what the office of the President is, or the Senate, or the House. They will explain unusual stuff as it comes up - the impeachment and conviction process when Clinton was impeached, for instance, or during the last Congress, details on how cloture works in the Senate.

EliRabett said...

Steve, signs are that it is pretty straight, he included the methane released by coal mining in the data. Eli is however rather annoyed that they do the GWP for methane in terms of per mass C, while the effect, of oourse is per molecule. That reduces the 20 year multiplier for methane vs coal from 105 to 38

David B. Benson said...

Eli is a perfectionist.

GOPers don't know the difference between 105 and 38.

John Farley said...

I am shocked, SHOCKED, to find that natural gas is contaminated with methane. Yuck (!) and double yuck (!!)

Natural gas must be good. That must be why they call it "natural". Unlike "unnatural gas" which is artificial and therefore must be bad.

We need researchers to figure out how to get remove the methane from natural gas, leaving only the pure natural goodness of natural gas. Like the crunchy low-fat granola of fossil fuels.

Before you write in to correct me...Yes, I realize that natural gas is methane (+ some small amounts of other alkanes).

The above is a joke. J O K E.

I.am.an.ACS.member! So.there.

Sou said...

But the methane that escapes through the mining process is the bad methane.

The good methane is the natural gas that's piped to homes, which gets burnt up on the gas stove anyway, so it turns into harmless CO2 and water and energy.


Arthur said...

I guess my point is, the modern US media almost never see actual education of the public as their purpose. They'll take somebody's words verbatim but, as in this case, *remove the explanatory stuff*. Because that explanatory stuff almost always involves boring things like numbers and history and scientific jargon that no self-respecting member of the general public really wants to add to the overflowing information stores already in their little heads. The public (from the media's perspective) wants the drama, the action, the two sides battling it out. What exactly the battle is concerned with, well, who cares, really?

You'll see this pattern just about every time there's some major political struggle over complex legislation; media reports on what is actually *IN* the legislation only come out in any detail *after it has been agreed on*. Up to that point almost 90% of coverage will be on who's ahead, who's trying to come from behind, rounding up votes, arguing about completely made-up issues that have little to do with the actual substance.

Blogs have started to help on all this, but you'll still see almost nothing from major newspapers in this area, and the chances of getting any detailed explanatory stuff on TV news are close to infinitesimal. Not their job.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Some minor notes on terminology:

The "journalism of rejection" is "spurnalism"

The "journalism of FUD" is "blurnalism"

The "journalism of interpretation" is "infernalism" (also known as delingpolism)

..and coming up with a definition for "kloornalism" is best left as an exercise for the reader.

Jonathan Gilligan said...

"Eli is however rather annoyed that they do the GWP for methane in terms of per mass C, while the effect, of oourse is per molecule"

I don't follow. In my little brain, the per-mass-carbon and per-molecule calculations are identical for CH4 and CO2 (both have 12 grams carbon per mole). What am I missing?

Jonathan Gilligan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Fracking can do wonders to the local water supply:



So the theory is that Good Methane is that which escapes from Democrats and Progressive Statesmen, while the vile mephitic exhalations of Republicans and other Low Whigs must be the bad kind.

Hmm.. I seem to have bought my infrared spectrophotometer from a Federalist, as it balks at distinguishing between the two.

Miguelito said...

Problem is, Howarth's study starts off with a doozy of a flaw.

The gas that flows back after fracking and drilling out plugs isn't vented. It's flared. Thus, their estimate of 1.9% of a well's lifetime production being vented to the atmosphere is very likely very overestimated. In the low case, while the CO2 from the flare has its footprint, their total carbon footprint is likely doubled or more than doubled in its direct methane emissions.

I'm surprised that Ingraffea didn't see this (he's an old pro in the oil and gas industry).

I do sympathize with Howarth on how to obtain information with which to do this kind of estimate. Companies hold onto their data with an iron fist and fight every attempt to make them submit more. They say they want policy based on science, but won't release the data with which to support those studies.

Finally, there's how not to respond to something like this. I present the Marcellus Shale Coalition. How can anybody have a fruitful dialog with anybody like this?


EliRabett said...

Russell, you can start a huge fight at Pittcon if you say the words infrared spectrophotometer (there are a hole bunch of fossils who think that a spectrophotometer can only refer to something that measures in the visible)

Anonymous said...

the modern US media almost never see actual education of the public as their purpose.

Hell, the actual education of themselves would be be a colossal victory.
Adam R.

J Bowers said...

Miguelito -- "The gas that flows back after fracking and drilling out plugs isn't vented. It's flared."

Has much changed since 2004?

US Government Accountability Office Report, to the Honorable Jeff Bingaman, Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate (PDF)

"Gas produced during oil production is called associated gas. During oil and gas production, it may be necessary to burn or release natural gas for a number of operational reasons, including lowering the pressure to ensure safety. Burning natural gas is known as flaring, while releasing natural gas directly into the atmosphere is called venting. In addition to the operational reasons for flaring and venting, in areas where the primary purpose of drilling is to produce oil, producers flare or vent associated natural gas because no local market exists for the gas and transporting it to a market may not be economically feasible."

No mention of only flaring back then. Does the EPA have a safety threshold for airborne benzene?

Anonymous said...

Ref. "...you just have to taste the blather to spot the rejectionists."

Would it be overly rude to refer to them as 'Rejects' (with emphasis on the first syllable)?


EliRabett said...

Well, to be sure Eli would not, but YMMV.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem with Howarth's study, even in his own words, is that he distorts the comparison of methane impacts with CO2 impacts by just quoting CO2 equivalents, which absurdly amplifies the impact of methane because it fails to take into account that methane oxidizes to CO2 in the atmosphere in about 10 years. Even where GWP (global warming potentials) are used, they are based on inappropriately short time frames, chosen explicitly so as to inflate the importance of methane leakage. If a fair accounting for lifetime were made, the effects of methane leakage would be fairly trivial compared to the effects of displacing coal. Actually, the beneficial impact of methane production is even greater when one takes into account that one can use methane (natural gas) in cogeneration plants, but not coal.

Frakking is far from environmentally benign, and its environmental impacts need to be evaluated seriously. However, Howarth is using a dishonest greenhouse accounting scheme to inflate his argument.


Marion Delgado said...

None of us ever called natural gas "pristine." Jesus. We pointed out that its combustion products were far cleaner than coal's. Some people pointed out that lower-compression engines designed from the outset instead of converted from gasoline would produce fewer nitrogen pollutants, unlike diesels. Etc.

We also pointed out that, regardless of the economics, burning off gas is wasteful and polluting: http://www.r-stahl.com/fileadmin/Dateien/ex-zeitschrift/2009/en/13_instead_of_burning_off_producing_gas.pdf

I agree the NPR Marketplace thing is misleading. Also, the biggest complaint is about SHALE, for God's sake. To lump all natural gas together is just absolutely @#$@ing brain-dead.

Neither shale nor "clean" coal will help one little bit.