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Gulf oil & gas disaster, fracking, media censorship & dirty gas threat to World

by Dr Gideon Polya - Open-Publishing - Tuesday 16 August 2011

Environment Gideon Polya

The 2010 Gulf oil and gas disaster made people pause to consider the safety of deep-water drilling. However a major pollutant from the disaster was natural gas (mostly methane) but this did not give rise to public concern about natural gas as a major threat to Humanity and the Planet. Indeed the World is now undergoing a gas rush and a gas boom, with gas derived from conventional on-shore and off-shore sources and also from shale deposits that are being subject to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.

The following analysis reveals that a coal to gas transition represents a huge threat to a World that must get to zero greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by about 2050 if it is to avoid a disastrous 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise.

Methane (CH4) has a molecular weight of 16 and carbon dioxide (CO2) has a molecular weight of 44.

When you burn CH4 you get CO2: CH4 + 2O2 -> CO2 + 2 H2O.

Accordingly, burning 16 tonnes of CH4 yields 44 tonnes of CO2; burning 100 tonnes of CH4 yields 100 tonnes x 44/16 = 275 tonnes of CO2; and burning 1 tonne CH4 yields 2.75 tonnes CO2.

However if there is industrial leakage of CH4 (estimated to be 3.3% in the US from US EPA data) [1] then one must consider the greenhouse gas (GHG) effect of the released methane (105 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas on a 20 year time scale with aerosol impacts included) [2-5].

16 g CH4 (1 mole CH4) has the GHG effect of 44 g of CO2 (1 mole of CO2) x 105.

Accordingly, 1 g CH4 has the GHG effect of 44 g CO2 x 105/16 = 288.75 g CO2 and 1 tonne CH4 has the GHG effect of 288.8 tonnes CO2-e.

Of 100 tonnes of CH4, how much CH4 leakage (y tonnes) gives the same greenhouse effect (in CO2 equivalents or CO2-e) as burning the remaining CH4?

Thus y tonnes CH4 x (288.8 tonnes CO2-e/tonne CH4) = (100-y) tonnes CH4 x (2.75 tonnes CO2-e/ tonne CH4).

288.8y tonnes CO2-e = (100-y) 2.75 tonnes CO2-e.

288.8y = 275 – 2.75y

291.6y = 275

y = 275/291.6 = 0.94 i.e. a 0.94 % leakage of CH4 yields the same greenhouse effect as burning the remaining 99.06% CH4.

Check: 0.94 tonnes leaked CH4 corresponds to 0.94 tonnes CH4 x 288.8 tonnes CO2-e/ tonne CH4 = 271.5 tonnes CO2-e . Burning the remaining 99.06 tonnes of CH4 corresponds to 99.06 tonnes CH4 x 2.75 tonnes CO2/tonne CH4 = 272.4 tonnes CO2.

How a coal to dirty gas transition can increase electricity sector GHG pollution.

Assuming that the MWh of energy produced per tonne of CO2 pollution for a gas-fired power station is on average 2 times that of a coal-fired power station (the current situation in the state of Victoria, Australia) [6], what would a coal to gas transition for electricity mean in terms of GHG pollution?

In Victoria, Australia, gas-fired power stations (0.60 – 0.90 tonnes CO2-e/MWh, average 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) are roughly twice as efficient in producing energy as brown coal-burning power stations (1.21-1.53 tonnes CO2-e/MWh) according to a report by Green Energy Markets commissioned by Environment Victoria (EV) [6].

Accordingly, at a systemic leakage of 0.94% the GHG pollution would roughly double to about 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh, equivalent to that of Hazelwood, the dirtiest coal-fired power station in Victoria.

A more precise set of calculations is given below.

1. If the systemic leakage rate is zero (0) then burning of 100 tonnes CH4 would be associated with 275 tonnes CO2-e to give 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh.

2. If the leakage rate is 0.94% then combustion of 99.06 tonnes of CH4 would be associated with 275 tonnes CO2 x 99.06/100 = 272 tonnes CO2 (from burning) + 0.94 tonnes CH4 x 288.8 tonnes CO2-e/ tonne CH4 = 271 tonnes CO2-e (from leakage) = 543 tonnes CO2-e. Accordingly, burning of 100 tonnes CH4 would be associated with 543 tonnes CO2-e x 100/99.06 = 548 tonnes CO2-e i.e. tonnes CO2-e/MWh would increase by a factor of 548/275 = 2.0 to give 2.0 x 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh = 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (i.e. as dirty as Hazelwood).

3. If the leakage rate is 3.3% (US average) then the combustion of 96.7 tonnes of CH4 would be associated with 275 tonnes CO2 x 96.7/100 = 266 tonnes CO2 (from burning) + 3.3 tonnes CH4 x 288.8 tonnes CO2-e/ tonne CH4 = 953 tonnes CO2-e (from leakage) = 1,219 tonnes CO2-e. Accordingly, burning of 100 tonnes CH4 would be associated with 1,219 tonnes CO2-e x 100/96.7 = 1,261 tonnes CO2-e i.e. tonnes CO2-e/MWh would increase by a factor of 1,261/275 = 4.6 to give 4.6 x 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh = 3..5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (2.3 times as dirty as Hazelwood).

4. If the leakage rate is 7.9% (the upper estimate with shale formation-derived gas) [7] then the combustion of 92.1 tonnes of CH4 would be associated with 275 tonnes CO2 x 92.1/100 = 253 tonnes CO2 (from burning) + 7.9 tonnes CH4 x 288.8 tonnes CO2-e/ tonne CH4 = 2,282 tonnes CO2-e (from leakage) = 2,535 tonnes CO2-e. Accordingly, burning of 100 tonnes CH4 would be associated with 2,535 tonnes CO2-e x 100/96.7 = 2,622 tonnes CO2-e i.e. tonnes CO2-e/MWh would increase by a factor of 2,622/275 = 9.5 to give 9.5 x 0.75 tonnes CO2-e/MWh = 7.1 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (roughly 4.7 times as dirty as Hazelwood).

Methane is 105 times worse than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 20 year time scale and major systemic gas leakage from the hydraulic fracking of shale formations has led Professor Robert Howarth, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, to conclude that “The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming. We do not intend that our study be used to justify the continued use of either oil or coal, but rather to demonstrate that substituting shale gas for these other fossil fuels may not have the desired effect of mitigating climate warming”. [7].

Gulf oil and gas disaster, media censorship re coal to gas transition, "gas is dirty".

Yet President Barack Obama has outrageously and falsely lumped planet-threatening natural gas under "clean energy"; permitted a massive expansion of offshore gas and oil drilling; and supported the Alaska Gas Pipeline, massive expansion of on-shore gas drilling and an oil-to-gas shift for transportation.

One would have hoped that the 2010 Gulf oil and gas disaster tragically devastating the coastal environments of the US Gulf States would have prompted sensible, informed public discussion about the immense threat that natural gas (mostly methane) poses to Humanity and the Biosphere.

Some news reports in 2010 sounded the alarm about methane from the Gulf oil spill disaster (variously known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the BP oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the BP oil disaster, or the Macondo blowout), e.g. : “According to John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanographer who is studying the impact of methane from the BP oil spill, the crude oil emanating from the seafloor [up to 100,000 barrels oil equivalent per day = 0.013 million tonnes oil equivalent] contains about 40% methane compared to about 5% found in typical crude oil deposits. The risk is great, as marine life will be suffocated as a result of the increased methane levels. The Gulf of Mexico will eventually have "dead zones" to deal with where oxygen is so depleted that nothing lives. This is significant and can forever alter the water/life composition. "This is the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history," Kessler said.” [8].

The amount of methane released over the 86 days between the initial blow-out and capping the well-head (20 April – 15 July 2010) can be estimated at 0.4 x (0.013 million tonnes methane /day) x 86 days = 0.447 million tonnes CH4 = 0.447 Mt CH4 x 105 x (44/16) (Mt CO2-e / Mt CH4) = 129 Mt CO2-e. Fortunately, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “John Kessler of Texas A&M University and colleagues surveyed the Gulf waters during the leak as well as after the wellhead was sealed, and their results indicate that a vigorous bloom of bacteria degraded virtually all of the methane released form the well within 120 days of the initial blowout.” [9].

Australian novelist Peter Carey recently observed that the really important news is the news that is not reported. Ditto, "The holes in history are what makes sense of the thing" (Aarons and Loftus, "The Secret War Against the Jews", p12). This is well exampled by President Barack Obama avoiding mention of natural gas in his 15 June 2010 speech on the Gulf oil disaster from the Oval Office – completely missing from Obama’s Gulf oil-and-gas disaster speech was one key word: gas. Read through his speech and you will find that he used the following words in descending order of occurrence: oil (24 times), energy (14), drilling/drill (8), clean energy (6), environmental (4), God/He (4), Al Qaeda (1), recession (1), gas (0). [10].

Similarly, a search of the entire ABC site for “Robert Howarth” yielded zero (0) results relating to the Cornell professor, noting that the ABC is the Australian equivalent of the BBC). Searches of The Australian newspaper (Australian national flagship of the Murdoch media empire) and of The Age ( the Melbourne quality newspaper of the Fairfax media empire and arguably Australia’s most progressive Mainstream medium) similarly reveal zero(0) reportage of the findings of Professor Robert Howarth.

Gas threatens Australia and the World.

Australia is a world leader in annual per capita greenhouse gas pollution, coal exports and liquid natural gas (LNG) exports. However the Liberal National Party-National Party Coalition opposition and the Labor Governments (collectively known as the Lib-Labs) have identical overall climate policies of “5% off 2000 Domestic GHG pollution” coupled with expanding coal and liquid natural gas (LNG) exports.

The Libs have a “Direct Action“ climate change policy (too little too late) whereas Labor has a disastrously counterproductive Carbon Tax-ETS plan that yields massive increases in Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution in 2020 and 2050 over that in 2000.

Thus the following estimates of Domestic and Exported GHG pollution in Mt CO2-e and based on Treasury, ABARE and US EIA data (noting that coal and gas exports are predicted to increase annually by 2.6% and 9%, respectively) :

2000: 496 (Domestic) + 504.9 (coal exports) + 16.8 (LNG exports) = 1017.8.

2009: 600 (Domestic) + 784 (coal exports) + 31 (LNG exports) = 1,415 (total).

2020: 621 + 1,039 (black coal exports) + 80 (LNG exports) + 59 (brown coal exports) = 1,799.

2050 : 527 (Domestic) + 2902 (coal exports) + 1,061 (LNG exports) = 4,490.

However these estimates do not take into account an approximate doubling of electricity sector GHG pollution due to a Labor Government-adumbrated coal to gas transition (and indeed an approximately 5 fold increase if fracked shale gas is used).

Hydraulic fracking of shale seams is becoming controversial throughout the world, including Australia (see the movie “GasLand”). Thus the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking) of shale deposits using high pressure water containing numerous chemical additives has been banned in France and New York has imposed a moratorium on the practice. In Australia there are bipartisan concerns about contamination and depletion of the great Artesian Basin, a huge source of water in this dry continent.

The main arguments against fracking for gas are destruction of prime agricultural land in a hungry world; pollution and depletion of underground aquifers; and gas is dirty, generates CO2 on combustion and due to leakage can be much dirtier GHG-wise than coal or oil (if there is a coal to Fracked gas” conversion.there will a circa 5-fold increase in electricity sector GHG pollution in Australia).

However a fundamental objection to “fracking” and a coal to gas conversion is that the World is rapidly running out of time to deal with the worsening climate emergency. Thus in 2009 the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WBGU, Wissenshaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen) issued a report entitled “Solving the climate dilemma: the budget approach” in which it estimated that for a 75% chance of avoiding a disastrous 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise the World must emit no more than 600 billion tones of CO2 between 2010 and zero emissions in 2050. In mid-2011 Australia has already exceeded its “fair share” of this terminal global GHG pollution budget and any Australian GHG pollution now is at the expense of the entitlement of all other countries. [11]

[1]. David Lewis, "EPA confirms natural gas leakage rates", The Energy Collective, 7 December 2010: http://theenergycollective.com/inde... .

[2]. Drew T. Shindell , Greg Faluvegi, Dorothy M. Koch , Gavin A. Schmidt , Nadine Unger and Susanne E. Bauer , “Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions”, Science 30 October 2009:
Vol. 326 no. 5953 pp. 716-718: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/3... .

[3]. Shindell et al (2009), Fig.2: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/3... .

[4]. Katharine Sanderson, “” Aerosols make methane more potent”, Nature News, 29 October 2009: http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091....

[5]. Dr Drew Shindell, quoted in Mark Henderson, “Methane’s impact on global warming far higher than previously thought”, The Times, 30 October 2009: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/ne... .

[6] Green Energy Markets, “Fast-tracking Victoria’s clean energy future to replace Hazelwood”, 2010: http://www.environmentvictoria.org.... .

[7]. Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations”, Climatic Change, 2011: http://www.sustainablefuture.cornel... .

[8]. Todd Schoenberger, “Methane gas concerns arose from Gulf oil spill”, Taipan’s Tipping Point Alert, 18 June 2010.

[9]. AAAS, “Science: Gulf bacteria quickly digested spilled methane, research says”, 6 January 2011: http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2... .

[10]. Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill, Oval Office, White House,15 June 2010: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press... .

[11]. Gideon Polya, “Shocking analysis by country of years left to zero emissions”, Green Blog, 1 August 2011: http://www.green-blog.org/2011/08/0... .

Forum posts

  • Disclaimer : I work in the CSG industry, so I may be biased, but ...

    The figures on fugitive emissions of methane from gas wells quoted by Howarth et al are manifestly implausible. If they were within two orders of magnitude of being correct then venturing onto a drill site would be sheer suicide ...

    The paper at http://junksciencecom.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/mismeasuringmethane082311.pdf pretty much sums it up, and identifies the inappropriate data that was used to make the estimates.

    That said, your theme of it being desirable to greatly reduce all fossil fuel use asap is sound. No argument there.

  • Correction: 1g CH4 has a greenhouse gas effect 105 times that of 1 g CO2 (and NOT as stated that 1 mole CH4 is 105 times worse GHG-wise than 1 mole of CO2).

    For consequently revised calculaions see "Gas is not clean energy": https://sites.google.com/site/gasis....

    The consequently revised conclusions are that:

    1. 2.6 % leakage of CH4 yields the same greenhouse effect as the CO2 from burning the remaining 97.4% CH4.

    2. With the existing power utility infrastructure in Victoria, Australia (in which gas burning yields half the CO2-e per MWh as brown coal buirmng):

    a. At a leakage rate of 2.6% burning gas for power would yield 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (i.e. as dirty as the dirtiest coal-based power station Hazelwood’s 1.5 tonnes CO2-e/MWh).

    b. At a leakage rate of 3.3% (US average) then burning gas for power would yield 1.73 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (1.2 times as dirty as Hazelwood).

    c. At a leakage rate of 7.9% (the upper estimate with shale formation-derived gas) then burning gas for power would yield 3.2 tonnes CO2-e/MWh (roughly 2.1 times as dirty as Hazelwood).