Minds Meet on Shale Gas, Fracking

by Bill Chameides | January 10th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 10 comments

Yesterday, a packed auditorium at Duke heard from experts on fracking. Among them, from left to right, Cornell’s Robert Howarth, Carnegie Mellon’s Kelvin Gregory, and Duke University professors Avner Vengosh and Robert B. Jackson. (Duke Photography)

Crossposted with National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge blog.

Highlights from a workshop on the environmental and social implications of fracking.

A group of the nation’s leading experts on energy and the environment are at Duke this week attending a workshop to try to ferret out the facts (and tamp down the hype) around shale gas and fracking, the controversial method for extracting natural gas trapped in shale deposits. With yesterday’s sessions held as a public forum and today’s held in private, the two-day workshop aims to find agreement on next steps to better understand the impacts and how they might best be mitigated.

For a topic that has elicited much emotion and passion from environmentalists and energy industry representatives alike, yesterday’s session was remarkably tame, even by scientific workshop standards. Speakers dispassionately presented their data and interpretation of same, and any disagreements were aired in the most collegial of terms. Anticlimactic, I imagine for those who were hoping for drama, but as one who was hoping to get a better sense of the state of the science, I found it to be quite informative.

Video will be available online Wednesday. In the meantime, here are a few highlights.

ExxonMobil: Fracking Is a Big Part of the Future

Michael Parker of ExxonMobil opened the session with a summary of the company’s most recent energy outlook, projecting national, regional and global energy demands out to 2040. ExxonMobil projects that:

  • global demand will, not surprisingly, rise — by about 30 percent by 2040;
  • the largest part of that growth will come from natural gas, with demand to increase by 60 percent;
  • a good deal of that increase will come from unconventional gas reserves (i.e., shale gas via fracking); and
  • most of the increased production of natural gas in the United States will be from unconventional sources like shale gas from fracking.

Interestingly, worldwide demand for coal is expected to peak and begin a gradual decline.

In the United States, ExxonMobil expects that natural gas will overtake coal by 2025 as the second most-used fuel next to oil — the uptick in use will come from electricity generation as natural gas continues to erode the use of coal. Driving the switch from coal to natural gas will be economics — since its advent, fracking has helped make gas-powered power plants a better economic bet than coal-fired ones. (ExxonMobil also expects that “policies that impose costs on higher-carbon fuels” will encourage the shift to natural gas.)

Another interesting part of Parker’s presentation was the national perspectives. Again not surprisingly, driving most of the rise in global energy demand will be China’s and India’s economies. But I was surprised by U.S. projections: While U.S. population is expected to grow at an annual rate of about 0.7 percent out to 2040, and gross domestic product by 2.4 percent, energy demand is projected to decrease annually by about 0.2 percent, thanks largely to improved efficiency in our energy use.

Does Fracking Undermine Drinking Water?

Duke’s Avner Vengosh presented on his data from Pennsylvania and New York that show some evidence of methane contamination of some wells near fracking sites. (Duke Photography)

This is a huge question with only a tiny bit of data — enough to raise some questions, but not enough to provide definitive answers.

At yesterday’s workshop, Duke University’s Avner Vengosh summarized his data from Pennsylvania and New York that provide circumstantial but not yet slam-dunk evidence of methane contamination of some wells in the vicinity of fracking.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s David Jewett described a new national study on “”Hydraulic Fracturing and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources,” which the agency launched in hopes of resolving this question. (See here for details.)

Of special note in Jewett’s presentation was his announcement at the outset that he would not discuss the so-called Pavillion groundwater study, a study carried out by EPA scientists who found evidence of compounds associated with shale gas drilling and fracking in drinking water wells in Wyoming. The report is undergoing peer review, and until that’s completed, EPA is not talking about it (in the meantime a draft report [pdf] is available).

Shale Gas: A Global Warming Goodie or a Baddie?

The accepted wisdom is that natural gas is a winner compared to the other fossil fuels. The reason is simple: On an energy-unit-to-energy-unit basis, burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) than does coal or, to a lesser extent, oil. But Cornell University’s Bob Howarth and colleagues challenged this contention based on the following:

  • The key hydrocarbon in natural gas is methane;
  • Methane is a much more effective greenhouse gas in its own right than CO2; and so
  • If enough methane is lost throughout the system, from losses at the wellhead to leaks from pipes and storage facilities during transport and delivery (collectively referred to as fugitive emissions), then, from a global warming point of view, natural gas may not be such a great choice.

Whether that last point is correct or not depends upon the size of the fugitive emissions. In their April 2011 paper, Howarth and colleagues argued that fugitive emissions from shale gas extraction are quite large and so, jumping on the fracking bandwagon would be a poor choice for our energy future.

Among the speakers at Duke’s fracking workshop were, from left to right, EPA hydrogeologist David Jewett, ExxonMobil’s Michael Parker, and Environmental Defense Fund’s chief scientist Steve Hamburg. (Duke Photography)

Since last April, several new papers on the issue have been published — the most recent by a Cornell colleague disputing Howarth et al’s fugitive emissions numbers. Yesterday, Howarth defended his numbers and reiterated his conclusion. The bottom line here is: The dearth of data on fugitive emissions means we need to get busy getting these data to resolve this issue.

Driving home the importance of getting a better handle on fugitive emissions was a really interesting set of statistics Howarth presented at the end of his talk: 40 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from natural gas systems and account for 19 to 44 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

The Takeaway: We Gotta Get Natural Gas Right

After yesterday’s session, a small group of us retired to the Faculty Commons for a glass of wine, dinner, and conversation. We were treated to a short talk by Richard Newell, a Duke professor and the director of Duke’s Energy Initiative, who returned last fall from a stint in the Obama administration as the head of the Energy Information Administration. Richard provided a fascinating overview of the issue from the perspective of someone who has spent the last two years trying to make sense of the nation’s long-term energy future.

Some relevant history: Hydraulic fracturing is as old as … well if not quite the hills, let’s just say it’s not new. A kind of hydraulic fracturing was first done in the late 19th century using nitroglycerin (see here, here and here [pdf]). Horizontal drilling is also not all that new, dating back to the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the two were put together, and the application of the process to extract shale gas didn’t really begin until the middle part of the last decade, but since then, it’s become a game changer — initially responsible for a percent or two of all natural gas production, it’s now producing about 30 percent of U.S. supply.

The economic impact has been huge. For instance, in 2006, the federal government was discussing ways to accelerate the construction of billion-dollar port facilities for processing imported liquified natural gas because it was believed we faced an imminent natural gas shortage that would put our electricity supply at risk. Today we have an overabundance of natural gas, prices are down and few are lining up to invest in such a facility.

Another point Richard made: The global shale gas resource is huge, so large that exploiting it will dominate supply and therefore set natural gas prices at least for the next decade. So from today’s perspective, shale gas is here to stay, a resource that will be exploited. So we’d better get it right.

Videos from the Workshop

Session 1

Session 2

Session 3

Post updated 7/20/2012 with addition of three videos.

filed under: carbon dioxide, climate change, coal, faculty, fracking, global warming, methane, natural gas, oil
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  1. Tom Mcinerney
    Jan 22, 2012

    There is concern that groundwater contamination issues will remain ambiguous until proper technique is sufficiently broadly applied as to confirm , or refute same. It is advantageous to ascertain accurately initially what is going on. The following paper provides good procedure: Identifying the Sources of Fugitive Methane Associated With Shale Gas Development Karlis Muehlenbachs , Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences , University of Alberta Edmonton , Alberta :: ca 30-Pg pdf SavedAs:: [[ Muehlenbachs Nov 14 FINAL ]] From final Slide : “ Conclusions and suggestions to Industry and Regulators: To identify specific sources of gas contamination groundwater we need to mandate baseline isotopic fingerprinting of methane , ethane and propane for: -Pre-development water wells -Production gases -Detailed gas isotope stratigraphy (mudgas isotope log) -Gases from: -Conductor , Surface , and intermediate casings -Legacy wells , if present -Natural seeps , springs and soils * The above requirements are not onerous.

  2. Rod Adams
    Jan 24, 2012

    Energy market predictions from ExxonMobil, a company that sells about $440 billion dollars worth of oil and gas each year, are biased. Half of its energy production is in the form of natural gas (though nowhere near half of its revenue). In 2010 ExxonMobil invested $41 billion in XTO, a domestic specialist in fracking. Cheap natural gas is having the fossil fuel industry’s desired effect of discouraging investments in new nuclear power plants. Large nuclear plants admittedly require a large, patient investment, but once built, each 1100 MWe plant would displace about 200 million cubic feet of natural gas demand PER DAY. Uranium fuel is not just a little cleaner than coal – it is clean enough to use inside a submarine. It also sells for about $0.65 per million BTU. Nuclear energy’s political disadvantage is that plant owners do not buy their fuel from ExxonMobil or its politically powerful brethren in the fossil fuel business.

  3. Liz,
    Jan 24, 2012

    There is no way to get gas right, not in the long run anyway. Perfect wellbore casing seals are a myth, they are bogus… If shale gas is here to stay, then what’s the plan? And why should Pennsylvania be the sacrifice zone?

  4. Kip Hansen
    Jan 23, 2012

    “We think the risk is pretty low,” said Mike Stephenson, head of energy science at the British Geological Survey at a press briefing in London on Tuesday.

  5. Kevin Matthews
    Jan 21, 2012

    In your thinking about ‘getting natural gas right’ and in Richard Newell’s representation of administration thinking… Where does the concept of a total US carbon budget fit in? There is only so much carbon dioxide (and methane, etc.) that we can release into the atmosphere and still recover reasonable climate stability in our lifetimes, or even in this century. Aren’t we already on track to overrun that total carbon budget, utilizing existing reserves and infrastructure? What is the utility (and even planning relevance) of new fossil fuel reserves and development, if exploiting them inherently puts us over a total carbon budget?

    • Bill Chameides
      Feb 6, 2012

      Kevin, Good point. In these types of energy projections, little or no attention is given to our carbon budget. The energy projections generally crash right through the carbon budgets.

  6. Marian Keegan
    Jan 20, 2012

    Sadly, the existing political and social structure has opened the door to development without proper planning. It is difficult to get it right under such constraints.

  7. MMM
    Jan 11, 2012

    “40 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from natural gas systems and account for 19 to 44 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions.” One: this sentence is confusing: does the 19 to 44 percent refer to methane emissions broadly, or methane emissions just from natural gas systems? (presumably the former). Two: Howarth can only get up to 44 percent by using 20 year GWPs. If he’s going to report the contribution of methane in 20 year GWPs, then the lower end of his range should be 500 year GWPs. Otherwise, just stick to 100 year GWPs (which is presumably where the 19 percent number: see pg. 6, which shows about 10 percent but for a 100 year GWP of 21 which is admittedly out of date).

    • Erik Schlenker-Goodrich
      Jan 21, 2012

      @MMM: Concerns regarding Dr. Howarth’s 20-year GWPs seem to be less about science and more about pre-conceived policy notions regarding the efficacy of natural gas as a transition tool. In other words, criticism of the 20-year GWPs typically comes from defenders of natural gas as a transition tool because it shows that natural gas is, at the end of the day, still a carbon-based fossil fuel, not a source of “clean energy.” Those 20-year GWPs are also well established in the scientific literature and more than defensible (and, BTW, you are right that EPA’s GWPs are very outdated, premised on the 1995 IPCC SAR). From a policy perspective, using 20-year GWPs illuminates the importance and value of near-term action to ameliorate climate change and is a more concrete frame of reference than, e.g., 500-year GWPs that seem to only dilute the urgency of near-term action. Re: Natural Gas’ long-term role, the concern, from my perspective, is two-fold. First, that too heavy a reliance on natural gas — i.e., not just using existing gas fired power plants, but building new set natural gas-based infrastructure — will ‘lock in’ emissions for decades. And, second, that investment in natural gas infrastructure will suppress investment in clean energy, thus undermining our long-term objectives. Moreover, we should not be so callous to forget that the extraction of natural gas, even putting aside concerns with fracking, has serious impacts. It’s a massive landscape-scale extraction process and even the best ideas for mitigation — too often viewed as a panacea for all ills — are not well implemented. Sincerely, Erik Schlenker-Goodrich Director, Climate and Energy Program Western Environmental Law Center

      • MMM
        Jan 24, 2012

        Dear Erik, Thank you for your response. I certainly agree that there are valid concerns regarding fracking in terms of methane leakage, local environmental impacts, and competition with investment in clean energy sources. Having said that, I think that we can get to the “right” answer without using “flawed” reasoning. I have 2 concerns with the reasoning in your post. First, 20-year GWPs are “well established” in the scientific literature only to the extent that they are calculated in many papers – but I think it is quite rare for scientists to endorse the 20-year GWP over the 100-year GWP – Howarth is the exception here. See, eg, the recent IPCC Expert Meeting on Metrics summary. I do not believe that 20-year GWPs add urgency to “near-term” action on GHG reductions in general: after all, 1 ton of CO2 is worth 1 ton of CO2-equivalent regardless of the GWP used. What a 20-year GWP does is emphasize the reduction of methane and other short-lived forcers at the expense of the reduction of CO2 and other long-lived gases. If all we care about is the next few decades, that’s fine, but I’d argue that we care about both short-term and long-term effects. I like the philosophy of the NRC Climate Stabilization Targets report: SLCFs and CO2 should be treated as 2 separate control knobs on climate, but to the extent that we are going to lump them into one trading policy, I think the 100-year GWP is a much closer fit to a reasonable tradeoff between near- and long-term than a 20-year GWP (and a number of published papers, including the IPCC expert meeting on metrics, have agreed with the philosophy that the 100-year GWP is imperfect but acceptable). Regarding committing to natural gas-based infrastructure: I agree with your dislike for additional fossil-fuel infrastructure at the expense of clean-energy technology, but I still prefer natural gas infrastructure to new coal plants. It all depends on business-as-usual assumptions. Finally: I think that one no-brainer is that to the extent that any fracking moves forward, it would make sense to make efforts to reduce and monitor both methane leakage and local environmental impacts to the extent possible. Sincerely, -MMM

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