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Fracking can be done ‘safely’

The conclusion of a review by the Royal Society in the UK,  is that fracking can be done ‘safely’, provided “best practices are implemented and robustly enforced through regulation.”

Unfortunately the Royal Society did not examine the more interesting questions of what fracking means for the climate, hence the scare quotes in the title of this post.

There are two distinct issues here, the first is the direct effect of fugitive emissions from fracking operations. Quantifying how much methane is not captured by the gas companies and is instead directly emitted into the atmosphere is difficult but the it is not likely to be zero. This is important because methane is much more potent a GHG than CO2 thus even small leaks can have significant effects on the climate.

The second is what having a large, cheap supply of natural gas means for the energy sector. Will it replace coal or undercut renewables like solar and wind out of the market? Answering this question is essential in determining what if any role natural gas can play in climate mitigation polices.

By avoiding these more interesting and difficult questions the Royal Society has, unfortunately, done very little to help us understand the costs and benefits of fracking.

26 Responses to Fracking can be done ‘safely’

    • Yes it hasn’t been addressed much at all or very well.

      The IEA did mention what a massive expansion of natural gas would mean for emissions in page 91 of their recent report Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas

      The Golden Rules Case puts CO2 emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions at around 650 parts per million, a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target.

      But much like the debates over the tar sands pipelines, the implications for the climate are simply not being considered seriously. Until this changes the long term sustainability of our energy system will remain out of reach.

  1. In the UK, the whole debate over the proposed raise in fuel duty (3p a litre), has been over the politics and “economics” of it (with a 19th paragraph quote form FOE in the BBC). I put economics in quotes as I have no idea whether the supposedly economic arguments are economic or more political-pseudo-economic.

    For those of us who would like a carbon tax (amongst other stuff), it’s not overly encouraging. But it also shows the disconnect in the media, between climate…and the disconnect that is the media impression of everyday life.

  2. That all said, the point that greenhouse gases aside, fracking can be safe is the genuine belief among the fossil fuel industry. That they were supported by the Royal Society in this is worth mentioning as well.

    Fracking is the ultimate good news/bad news, isn’t it?

    A fuel crunch is not something we want under the current chaotic conditions, but when will we want one? Yet without a fuel crunch, whether enforced by nature or by policy, we are literally cooked. (literally in the senses 2 and 3 here: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cook )

  3. Nice Battlestar pic find! Also: Lou Grinzo’s been making this point repeatedly. As he notes, we’re going to get many chances – one maybe? – to transition our energy infrastructure. Building gas into its nervous system is suicidally stupid. Whether it’s any more suicidally stupid than anything else we’re doing at the moment, I couldn’t say.

    ps Adam: on fuel tax as carbon policy, I guess we’re already running that experiment, if one looks at the current differences internationally. The problem is that transport and productivity are still umbilically linked, despite a great deal of money being thrown at ‘decoupling’ the two.

    • I see fracking as a counter to the Paul-Kelly-style argument of ‘we should align ourselves with anyone who has a goal in common’. Pursuing shale gas only makes possible sense, from a climate perspective, if you accept the urgency of reducing emissions, in which case if it genuinely is lower emitting than other fossil fuel sources then it could be used to replace those sources in the short and medium terms. However, for someone concerned by peak oil or energy security it is as likely to be an ‘and’ as an ‘or’.

      It’s probably not as suicidal as some of the other things we’re doing, but unless it’s actually replacing the jump off the cliff that’s little comfort.

    • I think the biggest problem with fracking is that it tarnishes my fond memories of Battlestar Galactica:)

      More seriously given the lifespan of power plants we are already building the energy infrastructure of 2050 and beyond. If we build a bunch natural gas power plants today we will be stuck with them (and their emissions) for many decades.

    • I should stress that I am completely in favour of using the current natural gas power plants as much as possible. The recent reports that power utilities in the US have shut down some coal power plants because operating their gas plants is cheaper is absolutely good news.

      Where things become bad news is when the cheap gas encourages people to build new gas power plants. Plants that will have to be abandoned well before their time if we ever get serious about solving the climate problem.

  4. Aside from the fact that Fracking (it really is the entire gas drilling industry, as wastewater wells are used in all cases. Fracking is just the new obsession that makes it worse going forward) is not helpful in reducing emissions, it really has never been proven to be safe for water contamination. Even Revkin is now publishing people who don’t go along with the USA gas cheerleading narrative.

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/02/more-views-on-the-gas-rush-and-fracking-debate/#h%5B%5D

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/gasland-filmmaker-takes-on-cuomo-and-dot-earth/

    And be cure to read a real investigation. Finally!

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=are-fracking-wastewater-wells-poisoning-ground-beneath-our-feeth&page=10

    • It might be both unsafe in practice and safe if performed according to protocol.

      However, the oil folk I know are adamant that it is actually safe in practice. This doesn’t mean they are right, but I have seen enough to be sure that they are every bit as exasperated by press coverage of the issue as climate people are of the coverage of the climate issue. They are quite convinced that people are getting the wrong idea from the press.

      (Not exactly a deficit model, guys. This is the value-subtract model of press reporting on technical issues.)

      And the way they feel about the Gasland guy is, I can personally attest, no different than the way we feel about the Great Global Warming Swindle guy. The thing about propaganda is it cuts both ways.

      Can I vouch for the oil guys over the people quoted in the Pro Publica article? It’s not my field, so not really. But neither can I vouch the other way. The opinion of the Royal Society carries more weight for me than Revkin looking at Gasland. “Even Revkin” is a very strange way to put it. The trouble with Revkin and the rest of the press is their refusal or inability to filter out worthless junk, isn’t it?

    • Safe in practice means safe given proper regulation and study which we don’t have as far as I can tell. Fox, even as a propagandist, is likely correct in his conclusion that there is no evidence that water contamination from drilling wells is a negligible problem and, also, has no solution at this time.

      The question that “activists” other than Fox are asking now, which is more interesting given that the gas price bubble may have popped, is whether or not proper regulation is too expensive to continue the planned massive expansion of shale fracking.

    • “There’s no evidence that X is not a problem” does NOT constitute evidence that X is a problem.

      I have seen this disingenuous gambit used by greenish types in the past, when in fact X was not a problem. This kind of thing reflects on the credibility of concerns about real issues and makes real progress harder.

      Only respect for truth is helpful. Any victory of any camp at the expense of truth is a defeat for humanity.

    • –“There’s no evidence that X is not a problem” does NOT constitute evidence that X is a problem.–

      That’s true, but it doesn’t encapsulate the argument. I was a little bare in the wording. It’s more like we know contamination can happen, the technology for cementing isn’t well tested, regulations aren’t good enough, etc, therefore it is a problem that the industry has not shown to be negligible and has no solution to make it negligible.

      I think it is a matter of what question we ask. The oil guys you speak of would like the question to be something along the lines of asking for direct proof that water contamination is a huge problem and proof that the cement plugs aren’t good enough. We can’t really answer that question yet, as we don’t have the study and energy companies keep that stuff to themselves, <a href="http://www1.rollingstone.com/extras/theskyispink_annotdoc-gasl4final.pdf"unless it leaks out.

      But I think we are talking in circles a little. I agree Fox is a bit Micheal Moore-ish and that has it’s drawbacks. I don’t believe he actively lies tho. In the end, I can’t agree more with the idea that natural gas needs harsh regulation on its fracking, wastewater wells, and methane leakage. Unfortunately for those seeking to make the promise of wild profits off drilling, the regs will bite, especially if the price remains low. I’ve seen a paper in pnas that I can’t find that details a way to make gas a safe product, so I don’t doubt it, the question is whether we will do and who can we trust to make it so. And if that makes us move on to different energy sources, so be it.

    • MIchael Moore is disingenuous and dishonest without actually lying. For instance, his claim that people leave their doors unlocked in urban areas in Canada presumably only applies to people with nothing worth stealing.

      It’s true that GGWS actually arguably goes so far as to break the truth rather than bend it. But the technology for telling a convincing story based entirely on facts and plausible extrapolations that is nevertheless plainly false is nevertheless well-developed. Indeed, one could say that all of our problems boil down to this.

      There is, as I understand it, no relation between fracking and groundwater that is different than the relation between ordinary drilling and groundwater. The vertical bore is the only place that interaction occurs. There’s nothing speculative about that technology.

      The occasional trick water tap, apparently, can occur without human intervention at all.

      I am very concerned about methane leakage, short and long term. The argument about long term leakage though requires a very narrow range of time constants. Leakage over a millenium or longer is, at this point, lost in the noise.

      All of this argument completely obscures the main issue. We are not interested in cutting greenhouse emissions per unit of energy in half. The situation is such that this is not worth the infrastructure cutover. We should leave most of the gas in the ground along with most of the coal. Claims about local environmental impacts promote innumerate thinking about global issues and do not seem sufficient (as confirmed by the Royal Society) to win the day.

      But the tactic of focusing on local impacts is doubly ill-advised because it is a distraction from the real issue.

      The issue is global carbon emissions. Fracking will fry us. Will. Not may, will. A couple of bad operations might also cause some local damage, or might not. Which of these issues deserves more of your attention?

    • I was just reading something in The Economist about planetary boundaries, which seems to mesh, in some ways, with this.
      The first [criticism] is that the idea of boundaries does not focus enough on the distinction between things with truly global effects and those that matter primarily at a local or regional level….
      Some of the other six [planetary boundaries] may have local thresholds, but for the most part their global effects are simply the aggregate of the local ones.

    • Monbiot seems to imply that environmentalists, as a body, believed in the immediacy of peak oil (this becomes a black and white certainty in the comments, inevitably). I’ve more or less ignored peak oil and assumed that many others have done likewise – am I wrong in this? Or has peak oil been a central tenet of environmental thought?

  5. Well done on Monbiot’s part, and very well written as usual.

    But this is not the first time he’s followed right behind P3. If he’s getting ideas from us it would be nice if he gave us a bit of credit…

  6. That rebuttal nicely sums up a lot of the accepted facts of unwavering peakoilers, e.g. that it’s been conclusively shown that oil price hikes are linked to recession (not really; e.g. wrong macro policy responses to oil-led inflation often tried to tackle it by raising interest rates, which just compounded the problem and possibly triggered recession by itself; uncertainty in price is often more important to investment decisions that which direction it’s going in, given that fuel costs are actually not a large % of overall costs.)

    It’s beside the point too, as Dan M points out. And of course the issue isn’t – absolutely cannot – be treated separately from considering ALL carbon fuel sources, especially gas and coal which can both, at the right price, get built into the economy’s nervous system.

    MT: “All of this argument completely obscures the main issue. We are not interested in cutting greenhouse emissions per unit of energy in half. The situation is such that this is not worth the infrastructure cutover. We should leave most of the gas in the ground along with most of the coal. Claims about local environmental impacts promote innumerate thinking about global issues and do not seem sufficient (as confirmed by the Royal Society) to win the day. // But the tactic of focusing on local impacts is doubly ill-advised because it is a distraction from the real issue. // The issue is global carbon emissions. Fracking will fry us. Will. Not may, will. A couple of bad operations might also cause some local damage, or might not. Which of these issues deserves more of your attention?”

    This is a brilliant, hard-hitting comment making the ground-truth point very strongly. Perhaps the basis for a slightly longer article? We need to start getting as many people as possible realising this. We need to keep it in the ground, and until this is at least realised, we can’t even begin to work out how.

    Like Monbiot though, I’m doubtful that it’s at all possible. We may just be a peculiar kind of intelligent bacteria, able to be individually aware of what we’re doing but collectively utterly incapable of doing a fart about it. Yearly emission rates continue to increase.

    Though I suppose it also implies we have to devote more resources to asking: what world are we going to face, and what, if anything, is in our toolkit to help as many people as possible endure it? Most present research is built on the assumption that we’re actually going to attempt a successful transition. At the moment that doesn’t appear to be true – pending some miracle energy tech discovery. (Though very nice point from Bob Grumbine on how we’re doing even with weather we should expect.)

  7. “There is, as I understand it, no relation between fracking and groundwater that is different than the relation between ordinary drilling and groundwater.”

    Correct, as far as I know, fracking is a target because the amount drilling that will now take place as a result of the technology making the extraction price profitable.

    “The issue is global carbon emissions. Fracking will fry us. Will. Not may, will. A couple of bad operations might also cause some local damage, or might not. Which of these issues deserves more of your attention?”

    Don’t take my interest in local water contamination as I sign I’m thinking small. I’m pointing to it because, as everyone agrees, the only way to allow it would be through heavy regulation on the operation, building, maintenance, etc on the wells, for years following the usefulness of the drilling site. As I asked before, at what price of extraction and compliance with regulation does the fracking revolution end and the renewable revolution begin.

    I wholehearted agree with the sprit of your statement at the end tho. There is a lot of cheerleading going on because we are down some in emissions because of the slow move to natural gas since coal regulations are moving the coal prices erratically (that you environmentalists!). I do not believe these numbers take the real emission cost of nat gas into consideration (leakage, water transport, mining).

    • I also believe that the method of fracking is much worse overall for methane emissions than conventional gas drilling methods. That would make a large difference.

    • That’s true, David. But the extent of frnacikg is increasing exponentially. And, the lateral drilling technique is relatively new, which has a lot to do with this. I think trying to brush these concerns under the rug is very short-sighted.

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