New Cornell Study Says Coal is Not Cleaner than Natural Gas

seriously flawedIn March 2011, Cornell professors Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro and Tony Ingraffea published a peer-reviewed study in the journal Climatic Change titled,  “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations” (see this MDN story). The study makes the claim that shale gas extraction is actually worse for the environment than burning coal because of greenhouse gases. Howarth et al’s conclusions were roundly refuted by both the U.S. Dept. of Energy (see this MDN story) and by a Carnegie Mellon University study (see this MDN story).

You can now add another group of Cornell professors to the list of those refuting the poor quality of the Howarth study. Cornell professors Lawrence M. Cathles, Larry Brown, and Andrew Hunter, along with Milton Taam (Electric Software, Inc.) have just published an article in the very same journal responding to the Howarth article. This new peer-reviewed article appears in the January 2012 issue of Climatic Change (a copy of the full article is embedded below).

Drs. Cathles, et al say that Howarth’s study is “seriously flawed,” that Howarth’s calculations for fugitive emissions—methane escaping into the atmosphere from shale gas drilling—are significantly overestimated, and that the timeframe they use—20 years instead of 100 years—leads to the wrong conclusion. According to Cathles and his co-authors, the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of natural gas is half, perhaps even one-third that of coal, not the opposite as Howarth argues.

From the article abstract:

Natural gas is widely considered to be an environmentally cleaner fuel than coal because it does not produce detrimental by-products such as sulfur, mercury, ash and particulates and because it provides twice the energy per unit of weight with half the carbon footprint during combustion. These points are not in dispute. However, in their recent publication in Climatic Change Letters, Howarth et al. (2011) report that their life-cycle evaluation of shale gas drilling suggests that shale gas has a larger GHG footprint than coal and that this larger footprint “undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over the coming decades”. We argue here that their analysis is seriously flawed in that they significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction, undervalue the contribution of “green technologies” to reducing those emissions to a level approaching that of conventional gas, base their comparison between gas and coal on heat rather than electricity generation (almost the sole use of coal), and assume a time interval over which to compute the relative climate impact of gas compared to coal that does not capture the contrast between the long residence time of CO2 and the short residence time of methane in the atmosphere. High leakage rates, a short methane GWP, and comparison in terms of heat content are the inappropriate bases upon which Howarth et al. ground their claim that gas could be twice as bad as coal in its greenhouse impact. Using more reasonable leakage rates and bases of comparison, shale gas has a GHG footprint that is half and perhaps a third that of coal.*

*Climatic Change (Vol 110, Jan 2012) – A commentary on “The greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas in shale formations” by R.W. Howarth, R. Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea

  • Anonymous

    If you read  Howarth’s study , he states that one quarter to one half of the methane leakage over the life cycle of natural gas usage  occurred at well clean-up [ venting and flaring until gas reaches purity standards acceptable for the pipeline]. This huge percentage of methane loss is addressed in the proposed SGEIS and corrections  are mandated. That alone would make Howarth’s study obsolete and worthless.

  • Anonymous

    If natural gas burned off anything but clean your home would be a disaster. Think about if you use natural gas to cook your food, heat your home and your water? At most in a bad cse you get a carbon monoxide build up but this is really rare and usually part of another problem. I also do not believe that they are allowing so much of the gas to escape into the atmosphere..This would be very similar to me burning one of my paychecks. When the cement job is finished and the casing slips are set the well itself is sealed and will remain that way until a workover rig comes in and perforates the casing, fracs the well, and flows the well back to surface. The weight (talking about hydrostatic pressure) of the fluid column alone should be enough to hold the well back (well control). I really thought we were beyond this global warming thing anyways. We just had the coldest two winters in years (2009 & 2010) down here in Mississippi. This is all “doctored” science with fuzzy math put forth by someone with an alternate agenda of some sort. Natural gas is clean and cheap and more important a cash cow for a country in a serious economic crisis. Not to mention plenty of good paying entry level jobs for those people that aren’t afraid to work and get a lil dirty.

  • Anonymous

    Nice!!! I really like how that popped right up there.

  • Anonymous

    My post about the Howarth article was just to point out ,even taking his figures, the methane problem is manageable . I don’t believe his basic conclusion was anywhere near accurate for other reasons.
    The proposed change in the SGEIS for N.Y.S. was that venting and flaring would be limited to two days with one extra day for “testing “. I’m not sure how this could be done without some kind of expensive containment system at well cleanup. Currently flaring and venting can take two weeks in some cases. That sounds like a bunch of pay checks being burned.This is one more reason I like LPG fracking; very little cleanup required . Whatever N.Y.S. requires, I believe the EPA is likely to also set new limits on methane leakage in the near future.
    As far as global climate change is concerned, every respected Scientific organization on the planet says we have problem; more droughts, more floods , more severe snowstorms, more severe heat waves, to look forward to because there is more energy [heat] captured in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. Like a air conditioner on steroids [more heat out one end, more cold out the other]. I side with their conclusions over the “experts” at fox news.

  • Anonymous

    I wasn’t taking a hit at your comment just messed up and replied to your link instead of the article. I don’t really see how they can regulate, fine, and/or punish in any case of coalbed methane leakage when millions of cubic feet a day are leaking into the atmosphere from the arctic tundra on its own. I also remember not very long ago a british university that was one of the “leaders” in climate change studies had their server hacked leaking out hundreds of documents concerning lack of information regarding global warming. Basically to many information gaps to say that there was or wasn’t a problem. It was however discovered that there were 20-30 year hot and cold cycles the earth went through without any influence from us. True it is warmer in some places and the gaciers are melting in alaska, but it is also true it is colder in some places and in some parts of the world new glaciers are forming and other growing longer. Magnetic north and south are constantly changing and when it does it affects how the earth sits on its axis which could make for some pretty crazy weather patterns. Remember the greenland block three years ago?? It set records for us down in MS. Highs in the 20’s and lows down to zero..that never happens down here that we know of but the records just don’t go back far enough to say for sure. As for the “experts” well Obama was the expert America elected and he managed to gain more debt for america than all other previous presidents combined. Just something for you to think on when choosing what experts you listen to.

  • Anonymous

    Most, not all Cornell University Students are a group of very wealthy spoiled Liberal children with seriously skewed views on most everything.  Mommy and Daddy protected them from the real world. Another waste of money and time on another bogus study. Coal vs Natural Gas, Pleeease!! I’m sure none of the study personnel actually visited a coal burning plant. Here is some homework for all you college students/ skeptics out there. In your home/ dorm cook an egg using Natural Gas and see and smell, what emissions come from doing it. Now, do the same thing using coal, let me know what your findings are. Just a quick note, make sure you turn off your smoke detectors when you fire up that coal, it will annoy you in the process. Oh yea, I forgot, open up all your doors and windows to release the dark cloud  that will accumulate in your house/ dorm. Keep a fire extinguisher on hand cause it has to burn real hot( you may break a sweat in the process) to be effective and could get out of control. My study is complete. My findings Natural Gas is a clean burning, fast, easy to use, and very reasonably priced. It is abundant, available everywhere, and easy to find extract and process to the market. When I cooked my egg this morning I did not smell or see anything offensive. for all the above reasons I did not even consider the coal study. So I passed on any testing. LOL. Now. all you students out there its OK to think on your own and when you get off the Mommy and Daddy bottle, and think for yourselves and actually have to make your own money in the real world you will come to the same conclusion, as I did above.

  • Anonymous

    Cooked my eggs with coal this morning. Killed my family. Thanks Waco. Guess I will go back to NG-lol. Great anology. ;o)

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