Published in 'The Ecologist', 30th May 2014, under the title, "Fracking 'as bad for climate as coal' – UK's dodgy dossier exposed"
As Charlie Chaplin said, "Wars, conflict, it's all business... Numbers sanctify." That was certainly the case with the UK Government's approach to shale gas. They hoped that they could whitewash the climate effects of fracking with some fancy formulas. Instead what they produced was another "dodgy dossier" – a straightforward denial of the uncertainties and the likely effects of what unconventional gas will do to the climate.
In December 2012 the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) commissioned a report on the climate impacts of shale gas. In September 2013 the report – The Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use, by David "No Hot Air" MacKay and Timothy Stone – was published. It said that the greenhouse gas impacts of shale gas would be "relatively small", and were likely to be no worse than conventional gas. But if we look at the numbers behind that report there's no proof to backup those claims.
Natural gas is methane – a potent greenhouse gas. On a 100-year time-line, including climate feedbacks, the latest science report from the IPCC says that methane is 34 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. Obviously, not the sort of stuff you'd want to be releasing large quantities of.
What's less well known is that on a 20-year time-line it's 86 times worse for the climate. By releasing methane today – let's say from intensive factory farms, or from very messy unconventional oil and gas drilling – it forces a lot of short-term warming of the climate. Given we're very close to some major climate tipping points, such as melting polar ice or Arctic tundra, we definitely don't want to be releasing large quantities of methane.
Back in 2010, the fossil fuel industry dismissed methane emissions from oil and gas extraction. A report for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which was quoted in a study of shale gas produced for the Co-op by the Manchester Tyndall Centre (which they later revised), considered methane emissions to be "insignificant".
That all changed in June 2011 when a group led by Robert Howarth released the first peer-review study of the climate impacts of shale gas. According to their research, given the poor quality of the data available on the emissions from unconventional oil and gas operation, on a 20-year time-line shale gas had as bad an impact on the climate as if you were burning coal. Needless to say, the oil and gas industry went into PR-overdrive to say the opposite.
This scientific ding-dong made the Government commission MacKay and Stone's report. But if some scientists say that shale gas is so bad for the climate, how come the Government's report says there's no problem?
First of all you have to look at where the data is coming from. The data which MacKay and Stone use is based upon "emissions inventories". When the industry drill holes they measure the gases coming off – and then commercial companies buy that data, collate it, and sell it back to the industry and governments to do studies of the impact on the environment.
The problem is that inventories are never complete. They can't measure all the leaks, and the occasional accidental or unintentional release of gases. What scientists have been doing recently is flying aircraft over oil and gas fields taking air samples, and they've discovered that the emissions are two to eight times worse than are declared by the inventories. If more than 3.2% of the gas produced leaks then the effect of burning gas to make electricity is worse than coal. Some studies have found leakage rates of nearly 9%.
What half a dozen scientific studies now show is that data in emission inventories is useless. The oil and gas industry are emitting far more methane than they claim. The latest study, published in April, showed that large quantities of methane were being emitted from drilling even before the fracking operations got under-way – something the inventories didn't measure.
Comparing the climate impact of fuels requires a calculation of the amount of equivalent carbon emissions per unit of energy produced – dividing the total emissions from production by the energy supplied to the market. The more gas produced per well, the lower the emissions per unit.
It turns out that the industry has been exaggerating the gas production per well. A recent study for the US Argonne National Laboratory put the actual amount at a half to a third of the figures quoted by the industry. In their study, MacKay and Stone used figures which were twice what average shale wells produced – which means their results were only half of what they would have been with the correct figures.
The issue of exaggeration is significant. In order to justify the viability of shale gas, MacKay and Stone quoted figures for gas production two or three times higher than the latest US figures. That means one of two things – either shale gas in Britain will be uneconomic, or the amount of gas produced will only be a tenth or less of the figures which the Government promote.
The other problem with the MacKay-Stone report is that they believe the industry will do things which they don't do in practice. For example, they assume that they might capture "100%" of the emissions because someone from BP told them so – but no source or reference for that is given.
In order to justify their claims, MacKay and Stone referred to a report that had not yet been published – by Allen et al. at the University of Texas. A week after MacKay and Stone's report came out that paper was published – and it looked brilliant! Only 0.42% of the gas was leaking! But when you look at the detail the facts mean anything but that.
The Allen paper is not a life-cycle study – it omits the totality of losses covered in other papers. More importantly, it's a non-randomised sample of 0.1% of the wells drilled in the US. In other words, the gas industry – whose names and site details remain anonymous – told Allen which sites to go and sample. The paper doesn't even say if the sites were producing shale gas, coal-bed methane, or if gas production was associated with shale oil wells.
The bottom line is they couldn't even get the details of who they were working for correct. When the Allen paper was published the PNAS website stated, "The authors declare no conflict of interest". A month later, when the media coverage had died down, PNAS had to publish a correction. It turns out most of those involved in the study had links with the oil and gas industry.
The figures the Government quote about the carbon emissions from shale gas are meaningless. We know that inventory-based assessments are significantly under-estimating emissions, but the Government ignore this debate. Shale wells produce a fraction of what is claimed, and yet we're told it's going to be an economic boom for Britain.
When the Government published the MacKay-Stone report they didn't publish the modelling spreadsheet. Reviewing all the evidence, using the details from the text of the MacKay-Stone report and the data tables, it's possible recreate their spreadsheet pretty accurately. Then you can modify the input values to produce the correct results!
If you plug the right values into the MacKay-Stone model, and then assume the bits they don't tell you in order to get a 20-year time-line for methane emissions, what's the result? Burning shale gas to produce electricity is about as bad as burning coal! Just as Howarth stated back in 2011.
In discussing the available evidence on the climate effects of fracking, the latest IPCC report on tackling climate change states that, "Recent empirical research has not yet resolved these uncertainties". If the IPCC don't know what the impacts are, how can the UK Government? The fact is they don't – they just think they do and want us to believe their delusion too.
There is no evidence to prove that natural gas is a "low carbon" fuel – as stated this month in the new paper produced by Howarth, and in a number of other recent journal papers. Natural gas doesn't save enough emissions to avoid dangerous climate change. If we want to do that then we have to change to non-fossil energy sources, but most importantly we have to drastically cut the demand for resources that drives emissions – including methane and nitrogen oxide emissions from intensive agricultural systems.
Unconventional gas is not a "bridge" to a green future – it's a treacherous cliff that the Government are asking us all to step off.