New Cornell University Study Says Shale Gas Extraction Worse for Global Warming Than Coal

Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor of ecology and environmental biology, along with two other Cornell professors, Renee Santoro and Tony Ingraffea, have just published a new peer-reviewed study in the journal Climate Change titled,  “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations.” The study evaluates natural gas from shale compared with other energy sources with respect to how much “greenhouse gases” are created during the extraction process. The study makes the claim that shale gas extraction is actually worse for the environment than burning coal because of greenhouse gases.

This newly published paper in a peer-reviewed journal is big news and has already been covered in the mainstream media echo chamber with more than 300 articles. But the criticisms have also been swift.

Man-caused global warming itself is a controversial theory and the basis on which the study was done. Supposing we accept man-caused global warming for the sake of argument, the primary points the study makes are:

  • A lot of methane (natural gas) escapes into the atmosphere when high volume hydraulic fracturing is used, more than previously thought.
  • Methane continues to leak into the atmosphere after the fracturing process is complete, during the drill-out phase.
  • Methane is a “powerful” greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential greater than carbon dioxide.
  • The greenhouse gas “footprint” of shale gas is 20% greater than conventional gas and oil.
  • Therefore, shale gas will do more damage to the environment than conventional gas and oil, and even more damage than other fossil fuels like coal.

There have been many criticisms of the study, including a response from Energy in Depth (EID), a pro-drilling industry group. Among the problems with the study pointed out by EID:

  • The study uses a standard, called the Global Warming Potential (GWP) factor, that is 45% higher than the GWP number used by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That is, the study arbitrarily use a higher standard.
  • The authors themselves admit, in the study, that the data is lousy. In some cases they have used obscure PowerPoint presentations found on the Internet as their evidence.
  • The very numbers used for how much methane escapes into the atmosphere from hydraulic fracturing is not scientifically measured, but a guess based on assumptions.
  • The authors also guess at how much gas leaks from pipelines and include that as part of the studies’ calculations (apples and oranges, the gas in pipelines does not necessarily come from shale gas).
  • The authors have a political agenda as witnessed by their participation in anti-drilling meetings and rallies, and therefore their conclusions are colored (slanted?) by their politics.

The above bullet points are admittedly brief and attempt to summarize a complex issue. To dig deeper, read the study for yourself, and read the full point-by-point criticism from EID:

Climate Change (accessed Apr 12, 2011 via Mother Jones website) – Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations

Energy in Depth (Apr 11, 2011) – Five Things to Know about the Cornell Shale Study

  • RHouck

    Not simple. And a lot of guesses. How much data do we need to have to make some policy judgments? And how much of the escaping methane can be captured, at what cost? Still, it does throw another factor into the mix.

  • 1955

    I suppose these Professors certainly are against heating there homes, cooking there food, heating there hot tubs, domestic hot water with NG. Take it away from them and then see what side they are on. It amazes me how these anti gas people belly up and use as much of the shale gas as everyone else. I am for drilling and as long as it is done properly. I worked in the drilling business 30 yrs ago and fracing was done then. I never remember anyone complaining then or it contaminating any water supplies.

  • Paul Cometx NYC

    MDN states: “Man-caused global warming itself is a controversial theory”

    Controversial? Because the billionaire coal-mining Koch brothers deny global warming, that makes it controversial?

    This study is important because it calls out an apparent problem with NG production and processing, no more and no less. The scientific method will be applied to collect and refine additional data. If further study validates the original observations, then the NG industry will have to fix it with better seals and other technological improvements. It’s very much like the automobile pollution-control technology that resulted in clean cars.

    I am not concerned about retrofitting advanced seals on existing NG wells, but there will be a massive increase in new gas production in the coming years, and the NG industry has an opportunity to get ahead of the curve by developing solutions to the leakage problem before those tens of thousands of wells are drilled.

    Commentator 1955 implies that scientists will deliberately produce misleading scientific conclusions based on their own personal gain. That might be how 1955 behaves, but not the scientific world, where peer review is required to validate findings.

  • Sane Energy

    Who paid for that study? Follow the money

  • NYShaleGasNow

    Why should objective media go along with calling this a “Cornell study”? I understand why activists want to call it that. But why play that game? Has the institution sponsored this work, objectively reviewed it, and reached broad campus-wide agreement with its conclusions? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say this is a study by Cornell professors who have each already demonstrated activist positions against shale gas?

    In fact, Cornell University the institution, just weeks ago, retired a coal-fired power plant in favor of one fueled by natural gas, asserting, among other things, it would be better for the environmnent!

  • USMC

    I think a major factor in all of this speculation on whether this is a safe option of usable energy should lie in the process of extraction and production. Just my opinion, but I think if there were several methods to reduce a potential risk it should at least be researched and weighed out prior to adopting a single method or process. 1955, just because it has been done this way for 30 years does not mean it is the correct way. Not only is that dating yourself and your business, but it is also putting peoples lives at risk, what Company did you say you worked for again? I have seen this school of thought before and it is still killing my fellow Marines in the aviation world. To all, what if there is a way we can reduce the risks associated with the contamination of our environment? Lets put our heads together and make this work, we are Americans, we are creating a New Age of Energy yet again.

  • Stan Scobie

    If youall notice, NONE of the industry-promoted “studies” are independently peer reviewed. When the O&G industry starts producing such then we can take them seriously.

    Peer reviewing is the “gold standard of scientific research.

    The Howarth, et al study meets that test abundantly.

    Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Binghamton, NY

  • Andy Leahy

    Let’s not ignore the clouding power of ideology over the illuminating power of science.

  • engineer77008

    This “study” by the Cornell anti-drilling professor has already been pretty well shot full of holes. The man doesn’t even understand what the terms used in the industry relate to! Equating measurement differences amongst meters to natural gas lost to the atmosphere is the height of ignorance, yet he uses such glaring and erroneous interpretations in his “peer reviewed study”. If this study was indeed peer reviewed, then the other reviewers must be just as ignorant of the subject they are reviewing. I suspect Robert Howarth will soon join Conrad Volz from Pittsburgh in the ranks of those most embarrassing to the academic pedestal.

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