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Wednesday, May 25, 2016
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The world today is a really, really complicated place, and it’s hard sometimes to figure out what makes it better and what makes it worse. One confusing issue regards natural gas as a major energy source. There are some big disagreements as to whether we should encourage or discourage the production and use of natural gas. On the plus side for natural gas: as with petroleum and coal, it’s a practical way to provide energy where ever and whenever you like, in large or small quantities; it can be stored without energy loss; it’s relatively cheap and easy to produce, especially given newer drilling technologies such as fracking; there is plenty of it in the USA and in many other places around the world; and it burns relatively cleanly, without smoke and with half the carbon dioxide by-product that coal emits per unit of energy obtained (e.g. the BTU), and 2/3 of what oil emits.

Natural gas requires infrastructure to safely utilize, e.g. a network of storage tanks and pipelines and pumping stations — but most of that already exists in the US. It’s not quite as portable as a petroleum product (e.g. gasoline and diesel fuel), given that gas is harder to contain than a liquid. Thus, natural gas may not be a good fuel for most transportation needs, although there are some buses and trucks that can utilize it. But for many uses including home heating, power generation and commercial/industrial processes, it seems to be superior to both coal and oil.

Given that human-made climate change is now widely recognized and accepted as a real and significant phenomenon, a phenomenon that could have very costly and disrupting effects on human civilization in the coming decades; and also given that climate change is largely driven by carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, it would seem that we should encourage the use of gas in lieu of coal and oil, as a step in the right direction towards lowering carbon emissions. But can we do even better in terms of lowering carbon output without restricting economic activity and diminishing standards of living?

There are several options, but all of them have their limitations. Hydroelectric power is economical and releases almost no carbon, but it requires expensive river damming projects which have long-term ecological consequences. Nuclear power is also carbon-free, but all the necessary safety measures make it relatively expensive, and it outputs radioactive by-products that we still don’t know how to properly store and keep safe for the long term. Next up is renewable energy, which includes bio-fuels (fuels from grown things such as corn or wood), solar power, and wind power. Bio-fuels have been tried, but now appear to often have significant ecological impacts and high processing costs. There will be “niches” where those fuels will make sense, but bio is not expected to take on a significant share of energy demand in the future.

That leaves solar and wind, the celebrated “green” energy options. These energy generating techniques have some environmental down-sides (e.g. need for lots of land, mining of exotic elements for their machinery, disruptive interactions with wildlife), but for the most part these are the cleanest options. They can be used on both small and large scales (e.g. solar panels on home roofs versus hundred square-mile solar generating “farms”), and many people now urge our government policy makers to discourage all fossil fuels including natural gas and concentrate instead on improving and significantly expanding the use of solar and wind power. Some experts believe that climate change is already at a point where merely slowing carbon emissions growth would not be enough to avoid dire social and economic consequences during the second half of this century (i.e., if average warming exceeds of 2 degrees Celsius). They feel that the only hope for civilization lies in actually decreasing overall carbon emission levels as quickly as possible.

So why aren’t we on a crash program to de-carbonize our economy and replace all fossil fuel use with power generated by solar and wind? The “green renewable” energy sources certainly are growing and getting better, as their cost per unit of energy unit output is continually declining. However, wind and solar power are not as portable and flexible as fossil fuels are, and their production capacity is subject to natural limitations (the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t shine at night and on cloudy days). If their energy output could be easily stored and saved for use as needed without significant loss, this would not be such a problem. But the techniques available to do this (e.g. batteries and capacitors to store generated electricity) are still not very efficient. A lot of scientists and engineers are currently working on finding better ways of storing green energy, but as of yet, there has not been a “breakthough” that would allow green energy to do just about everything that oil, coal and gas now do, and do it at a cost that would not require any significant reductions in our lifestyles. Another headache, there would also have to be a large financial investment to adapt the US power grid to where most of the solar and wind power would come from.

Despite the dire warnings from some quarters about runaway climate change in the offing, recent forecasts of energy use over the next 20 years do not anticipate a revolutionary change in the energy mix. According to the US Energy Information Administration, coal, oil and natural gas accounted for 83.0% of energy demand in the USA in 2015. Renewable sources provided 2.70% (the balance provided by hydro, nuclear and biofuels). The EIA forecast for 2035 is 78.5% for fossil fuels and 7.52% for renewables. That’s a step in the right direction, certainly, but not a revolutionary change. I also took a look at similar forecasts made public by BP Energy — ok, maybe you don’t want to trust their numbers given that BP is a major fossil fuel producer. But their figures are actually quite close to the US EIA forecasts; BP says that 83.0% of overall North American continent energy demand was covered by fossil fuels in 2015, and this will decline to 77.9% in 2035 (half a percentage point lower than the US EIA estimate). As to renewables, BP says that these sources provided 2.70% of North American demand in 2015, and will provide 8.66% of energy in 2035 (more optimistic than the US EIA forecast by a full percentage point).

So, if you take seriously what the US Government is currently saying, and if you also check out what people who have money invested in the game think (realize that BP could be sued by its present investors if it tried to deny or hide an incoming tsunami wave of renewable production), you get the impression that a green energy revolution just ain’t gonna happen anytime soon, despite President Obama’s commitment to fight climate change. In 20 years, there will certainly be a lot more green energy in use, but there will still be a lot of fossil fuel production, much like today. On the world-wide basis, BP thinks that renewable energy sources will go from 2.71% of total energy demand in 2015 to 7.85% in 2035, while fossil fuels go from 85.5% to 79.1%. Not much different from the US and North America figures. Oh, the EIA also provides 2040 numbers; but the extra five years don’t make much difference. In 2040, fossil fuels will still be meeting 78.1% of domestic energy demand, and renewables will be up to 8.24%. Again, barring some sort of “black swan” technology development, don’t hold your breath awaiting a green energy revolution.

If this is true, then perhaps our leaders should be taking steps to make natural gas the preferred fossil fuel and eliminate as much oil and coal as possible. That would at least mitigate the climate change situation as much as practically feasible, even though disaster might still be lurking. But of course, in our complicated world, there is still another issue with gas, another head-scratching problem. And that involves the methane released into the atmosphere during the production, transport and processing of natural gas.

Methane is another greenhouse gas; similar to carbon dioxide, it acts like a gaseous blanket which helps to warm up the lower atmosphere. Another complexity — although methane has an effect similar to carbon dioxide, it works in a different fashion. When methane is first released, it is an extremely potent heat-capturer. In the first months after it is released, it captures up to 100 times more heat than the same amount of carbon dioxide does. However, over time it gets broken down into harmless stuff, whereas carbon dioxide lasts a lot longer then methane. Methane’s half-life is about 7 years, and by the 14th or 15th year, there isn’t much of the original release left. Carbon dioxide sticks around for around 100 years. Over a 20 year period, the estimates of methane’s overall strength relative to carbon dioxide range from 72 to 86. Over a full 100 year cycle, these estimates are between 25 and 34 (the US EPA uses 25 and 72 for the 20 and 100 year estimates; articles trying to scare you about the evils of natural gas will use the 86 number and don’t explain the 20 versus 100 year issue).

Thus, methane has much more of an effect on tropospheric heat capture than carbon dioxide has; but much less methane is released in the process of extracting, producing and transporting natural gas versus the carbon dioxide that is released when natural gas (or any other fossil fuel) is burned. The question then is whether the low amount times the bigger impact of fugitive methane overwhelms the positive effect of reduced carbon dioxide emissions when natural gas is used.

There are a lot of studies on this, and a review of what is available from a web search will make your head spin. Unfortunately, the studies and articles often seem to have a political bias to them. The Environmental Defense Fund not surprisingly released a number of studies indicating that escaped methane from natural gas extraction and processing was a lot higher than had been anticipated, and thus made natural gas even worse for the climate than coal (but I’m not sure if they accounted for the fact that coal mining itself releases significant amounts of methane). A Harvard study said that oil and gas fracking operations were mainly responsible for the global increases in atmospheric methane concentrations since 2007. Other legitimate studies (e.g. a recent Stanford University paper) indicate that even though gas-related methane escapes were significant and possibly exceeded previous estimates, they still did not overwhelm the climatological impact of natural gas’ lower carbon emissions, i.e. that natural gas is still better for the climate than coal.

The Harvard study lumped oil and gas exploration together; another study indicated that oil extraction released more methane than natural gas exploration, so perhaps natural gas extraction was not the primary driver of the atmosphere concentration increase. A 2016 study indicated that gas and oil extraction (again, lumped together) caused about 40% of the increased methane concentration since 2007, but agricultural and landfill expansions throughout the world caused 60%. I.e., growing populations especially in the under-developed world require bigger landfills (which are poorly managed, thus releasing a lot of methane), and increasing living standards in China and other developing nations have increased the demand for meat, thus increasing livestock populations. And yes, digestive gas from cows and pigs is a huge source of methane, along with their manure. The EPA estimates that the oil and gas industry presently contribute about 33% of methane emissions, while animal digestion contributes 22% and manure management adds another 8%. Landfills contribute another 20%, and coal mining chips in 9%. Oh, and rice paddies also let out a lot of methane; and growing Asian populations demand more and more rice.

The problem is that all of this is usually reported with a bias. The liberal pro-green energy sites (e.g. Greenpeace) and associated articles focus on studies that point fingers at the oil and gas industry for methane woes. These articles and sites argue that natural gas is NOT an interim improvement relative to coal and oil, and thus the government needs to put all its chips on developing and expanding solar and wind power as quickly as possible. By contrast, the conservative blogs and news sites often cite animal and agricultural studies to conclude that the methane increase problem has little to do with oil and gas extraction.

The more balanced sources present the situation in a fairer way, and they make an interesting point. The US EPA is now placing a lot of scrutiny on oil and gas producers regarding methane (new regulations to control methane emissions from new gas wells were just released by the EPA), but it is doing little to control the agricultural sector’s emissions. Congress has expressly banned the EPA from collecting methane and carbon emission data from livestock producers. Yes, the farm and agricultural lobby remains as strong as ever. Interestingly, a 2013 study by Harvard, Stanford and the US NOAA sampled air at large livestock feeding lots in California, Iowa and Nebraska, and found that livestock greenhouse gas emissions were twice as bad as what the EPA had estimated. So, it is not just natural gas production that is potentially exceeding the EPA’s previous escape estimates.

Pro-gas industry commentators say that the gas producers themselves have significant economic incentives to control methane emissions (as methane can be added back into the extracted natural gas, increasing the amount of gas available to be sold). One article indicates that field losses of natural gas fell from 1.15% in 2005 to 0.88% in 2014. But this doesn’t count the downstream losses, which send the overall rate of loss up to between 2 and 5% — anything over a 3 to 3.6% loss makes natural gas worse for the climate overall than coal.

One study indicates that most methane releases from the gas industry come from a small number of “super-emitters”, which could include wells and processing and storage facilities. So it would seem that most of the gas producing companies are trying to keep methane leakage in check, but certain producers and processors “get sloppy”. This is to be expected in an extractive industry — it’s the familiar economic “wasting asset” exploitation problem. Gas wells, along with pipelines, tanks and pumping and processing infrastructure require a lot of financial investment up front, but then last for many years with relatively low maintenance and operating costs. So you put a lot of money in up front, then hope that the well (and the other various distribution infrastructure) holds up long enough to return your money and give you an overall profit.

When a well gets old and only has a little bit of gas left, most of the big producers decide it isn’t worth the cost to continue properly maintaining the well, and they abandon it. However, I suspect that there are some “rogue” companies that specialize in buying old wells from the big companies and squeezing out as much of the remaining gas as they can with as little investment into it as possible. When pipes and joints and valves crack and start to leak, they are not fixed — it’s not worth it to the final owner, as the well only has a few months left to go. These older wells thus become very leaky. It’s probably the same story for the older storage and processing facilities — a fly-by-night owner comes in and keeps the place running in bad shape just to squeeze out a few extra bucks until things fall apart. (State and federal inspectors? No problem, that’s what political donations to Congressmen and state representatives are for!) The underground coal mining industry (which is now becoming extinct) had the same problem — old mines run by unscrupulous short-term owners became deadly traps for miners. Interestingly, older urban apartment buildings are also often treated as exploitable wasting assets, sold to a “rogue” owner who does just enough to keep collecting rents until the building finally becomes uninhabitable (and is then probably sold at a profit to a new developer).

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s new EPA regulations on methane emissions for gas producers does NOT address the rogue wasting asset problem. They focus on new wells, when the operator has the greatest incentive to install and use methane capture technology. Supposedly the regulations will eventually be expanded to older wells. This is why so many people have become cynical of government regulation — federal agencies often seems to regulate for the sake of regulation based on vague notions of why the activity should be regulated, without a specific goal and intelligent strategy in mind. The new EPA regs might even have a perverse impact until the regulations can be rolled out to the older wells and facilities. I.e., they will make new wells more expensive relative to older wells, and thus there will be fewer low-leak new wells and more high-emission old wells.

I am not against federal methane regulations for the gas industry. I personally think that the government would be doing the gas industry a favor, by requiring that it maintain consistent methane control standards so that natural gas will clearly become a more climate-friendly fuel than oil and coal. The state of Colorado has already enacted comprehensive methane regulations, and the costs to find and fix leaks were lower than the industry initially estimated.

A growing industry of methane control companies is forming, represented by an industry group called the Center for Methane Emissions Solutions. They claim that the methane control cost curve is already trending downward due to a growing body of experience and technology development for detecting and fixing leaks.

The problem for the federal government is to use this growing body of technology and experience in a truly effective way, and thus overcome the natural gas industry’s incentives to “look the other way” regarding the rogue fast-buck producers who probably cause most of the methane leaks. If that could be done properly, natural gas might truly become the so-called “bridge fuel” that helps us to at least mitigate the effects of greenhouse gasses, until an “energy revolution” eventually comes along and brings the carbon era to an end. (Well, mostly to an end — it has been proposed that even when radical new electricity storage devices make solar and wind power widely cost-effective, there will still be times when nature will cause very low output; having a few stand-by natural gas generators ready to crank-up on short notice might still be a very good insurance policy).

DISCLOSURE: I invested some $$ in a natural gas mutual fund, as part of my retirement savings. It’s a relatively small portion of my savings; I have a lot more money tied-up in social responsibility funds. I made the gas investment about 7 years ago when fracking technologies started increasing the supply and lowering the cost of domestic natural gas. It seemed like a good idea, both for me as an investor and for the country in terms of lessening our dependence on imported oil and in making a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. OK, since then it turns out that fracking’s environmental downsides have become widely known — although ALL forms of energy generation have such downsides, including solar and wind. I believe that a lot of the environmental hub-bub about fracking stems from the NIMBY perspective. We now produce more of our energy domestically, as opposed somewhere in the Middle East or Nigeria or Mexico (not to say that stiffer fracking regulations are never justified). Thus we now mess up our own backyards, as opposed to some poor country thousands of miles away, making it highly convenient for video muckrakers who crave to be the next Michael Moore (e.g. Josh Fox with his Gasland documentary). Admittedly, natural gas also has its methane problem. And finally, I’ve lost a good bit of money on this investment! But I’m sticking with it; despite the disdain that greenies have for fossil fuel investors, I still think that the goods will outweigh the bads, given the realities of how things actually work, given what can actually be accomplished in a very, very complicated world.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:22 pm      

  1. Jim, This is a most thorough essay on the various things that can be used for energy as the world needs it in the present time. I think you cover most of the kinds of energy and how they affect climate change. I cannot say I am well informed about the various kinds of energy, except on a very superficial level. And it’s most likely I lack a good understanding of your essay as numbers tend to make my head spin (as I’ve said before).

    I would also like to emphasize that any comments I make here are in no way be meant to be critical of anything you have said. I admit fully I am not any where near as informed as you are on this topic. But maybe I come at it from a different point of view and thus may SEEM critical but am only offering a viewpoint for consideration that may not have been a topic included in your essay.

    One thing that surprised me when I read it some time ago was that wind power, which I tho’t must be the best possible kind of energy to use, has its own peculiar drawback(s). It is very noisy when the wind turbines are turning and making energy—not well received by those who live close to these turbines or have them on their land used for farming or raising cattle or other animals.

    Then too, while sometimes the wind is not blowing in a certain place, it almost certainly is blowing somewhere in the world. It would seem to me that there should be some way to manage to “hook together” various ways of storing wind power and sending it where it is needed (when the wind is not blowing in a particular place). Then again, I may be way off on this as my knowledge about any of this is almost nill.

    I find myself wondering if animals produce so much methane gas, would the eventual result be a “containing” of all animals in large barns (as, for instance, pigs, cows, and chickens already are contained) to enable corporations to somehow use that Methane gas produced by the animals. Such animals may end up being contained in barns of some kind where they never get to be out in any kind of open air or eat any “outside” kind of food that is a normal food for them. Might this “containment” have some effect on humans who eat their meat? (Continued p.2)

    Comment by Mary S. — May 27, 2016 @ 10:54 am

  2. (Continued) Then too, in my own peculiar roamings through the Internet, I find that there seems to be a need on the part of more people than one might think to consider the need for small, private, family farms (as there were in the “old days”—and here I really mean the “old days”, not just some 50 years ago). I find myself wondering if private, smaller or larger, farms may be returning. There seem to be a surprising amount of people who have been returning to “the land”, raising their own food, both animals and plant. While the need for energy will not be reduced completely, it may be the start of a new trend that will grow. (On the other hand this trend may be just that, something some individuals are interested in for a while and then soon grow tired of.)

    Even with the “new” kinds of energy that may be produced, a corporate approach is still the main consideration of how new forms of energy should work. With a corporate approach to anything, the individual is nothing but a robot working for the corporation—and we are back to the 99% who have little and the 1% who have much. But there are more people than one might think who seem to want a return to family farms, raising animals and growing food for themselves and/or to sell it on what might be a much smaller, and definitely NOT, a corporate level; they want a better distribution of money to the 99% and have started their own small attempts at such.

    While some of the countries of the world (such as China) might be going quickly corporate, it may be that other countries (such as America) may be taking a different approach, a non-corporate approach, which might be called a “private” approach to living.

    It will take some time for all this to be figured out, and for sure it will not be in my time; it may be that the generations coming up may find a completely different approach, one no one has tho’t about yet, to how to handle and deal with the use of energy. We may not have a clue what will be tho’t of in the future by those who come after us.

    Once again, I emphasize: There is no criticism whatsoever of your essay here, just a tho’t about different approaches that may develop in the future, approaches to how energy is used to aid and help humans, animals, plants, the earth itself. It’s entirely possible that none of the ways that would be useful and helpful and non-hurting to anything on the earth are yet to be considered and developed but will be in the future. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 27, 2016 @ 10:55 am

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