Shell: internal carbon pricing and the limits of big oil company action on climate

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on March 24th, 2015.

Shell evaluates all of its projects using a shadow carbon tax of $40 per tonne of carbon dioxide. That’s great. But why is the company still exploring in the Arctic and busy exploiting the Alberta oil sands?

Of all of the big fossil-fuel companies, Shell has adopted perhaps the most constructive position on climate change mitigation. Recently, the company’s CEO, Ben van Buerden told an industry conference:

You cannot talk credibly about lowering emissions globally if, for example, you are slow to acknowledge climate change; if you undermine calls for an effective carbon price; and if you always descend into the ‘jobs versus environment’ argument in the public debate.

Shell employs engineer David Hone as their full-time Climate Change Advisor. Hone has written a small ebook Putting the Genie Back: 2°C Will Be Harder Than We Think, priced at just 99¢ and he writes a climate change blog that should be part of every climate-policy geek’s balanced diet.

Shell also has a position they call Vice President CO2, currently occupied by Angus Gillespie. Here’s Gillespie talking recently at Stanford on the company’s internal shadow carbon pricing strategy (hat-tip to John Mashey). It’s worth watching if only for Gillespie’s vivid example of the limitations of looking at averages. The slides can be downloaded here.

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Have we turned the corner on emissions?

One of these days, the world will get its act together and halt the growth in CO2 emissions. This week, the International Energy Agency reported that the rise in emissions did indeed stall in 2014. According to the announcement, this was the first time in forty years that IEA emissions did not increase, except in years of economic weakness.

When we start to turn the emissions corner for good, this is what it will look like. Although halting emissions growth does not yet put us on the path to meeting the 2°C target, it does at least mean that we might not be destined to follow the business-as-usual path to disaster along the worst-case RCP8.5 pathway. At least we are not going as fast along that road.

Chris Mooney, Climate Nexus and Joe Romm have articles on this, all worth reading.

The IEA announcement was a teaser: we are going to have to wait until June 15, 2015 to see the details of the analysis. In the meantime, I thought it would worthwhile looking at some data to see how confident we can be that this really is a positive signal that we can discern out of the noise and uncertainty.

First, let’s plot year-to-year growth in CO2 emissions, along with global GDP growth, against time:

IEA1

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Does providing information on geoengineering reduce climate polarization?

This article was originally published at Skeptical Science on March 4, 2013.

Dan Kahan of Yale University and four colleagues have just published an article in Annals of the AAPS titled: Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication that investigates the effect on study participants’ attitudes to climate change after reading an article about geoengineering. In their abstract, they write:

We found that cultural polarization over the validity of climate change science is offset by making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions.

I will argue here that this experiment achieved no such result because the premise was wrong. Specifically, the information on geoengineering that was presented to the study participants (in the form of a fictional newspaper article) bears no relation to mainstream scientific opinion on geoengineering nor, even, to the opinions of advocates of geoengineering. Geoengineering is portrayed in the fictional newspaper article as a strategy with no uncertainty about how well it might work and, it is claimed, will “spare consumers and businesses from the heavy economic costs associated with the regulations necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm or lower”. This is hardly depicting geoengineering as a “potential solution” or “a supplement” to the restriction of emissions, as is claimed in the abstract of the paper.

In fact, what Kahan et al. have demonstrated is that presenting misinformation dressed up as fact can affect people’s opinions about climate change. That may be interesting as a social science experiment conducted on consenting adults, but it is not much use as a guide to effective public science communication, constrained as it is to tell the truth.
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Fracking 3: Quantity has a quality all of its own

The essential characteristic of shale gas is that the resource volume is often huge and the magnitude and effort required to extract it is correspondingly enormous. What attracts the fossil fuel companies is the same thing that alarms people living near the shale gas resource. It worries those of us who are concerned about dangerous climate change, as well.

In 2013, the British Geological Survey (BGS) published an assessment on the gas resources of the Bowland Shale in northern England. They concluded that the median gas-in-place resource was 1329 trillion cubic feet. To put this in perspective, this is about 16 times the amount of gas produced  from the UK North Sea over 50 years. The BGS did not estimate the recoverable gas resource, because they considered that the recovery factors are too uncertain to quantify.

How much drilling would it take to exploit this resource?

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Fracking 2: There’s no endorsement of fracking from Skeptical Science or climate experts

The blog Skeptical Science is mainly concerned with “Explaining climate change science & rebutting global warming misinformation” and is mostly devoted to debunking the often nonsensical and incoherent notions that dispute the physical science of climate change. Occasionally though, the contributors to the blog—including me—write about solutions and policy. When we write about energy matters, we tend to focus on climate effects, but not so much on things like aquifer pollution from unconventional oil and gas operations.

In a blog post he titled Global warming believers for natural gas, Nick Grealy claimed that a post on Skeptical Science discussing the famous 2004 “wedges ” paper by Pacala and Socolow somehow endorsed the greatly expanded use of unconventional natural gas. just because it mentioned that one of Pacala and Socolow’s 15 wedges was about gas substituting for coal. Dana Nuccitelli quickly put him right in the comments.

Recently, Skeptical Science has run a series of posts about the recent research on fugitive methane releases from oil and gas operations. These include:

To frack or not to frack?

Methane emissions from oil and gas development

More research confirming methane leakage from shale boom

I also have written on British Columbia’s suspiciously low self-reported fugitive emissions. I published that work on this blog rather than on Skeptical Science, because this particular issue has a local rather than global focus.

Skeptical Science does not endorse fracking and the contributors there have consistently expressed concerns that fugitive emissions of methane may erode the emissions advantage that gas has over coal. Continue reading

Fracking 1: Spot the Charlatan

Shale Gas Guru,  Missionary and blogger Nick Grealy has been running a blog on fracking since 2008. I used to follow it with interest in the early days because he provided some perspective and useful links to studies on what was then an emerging technology. He seemed to be a bit too gung-ho about the prospects for shale gas in Europe, but nobody knew at the time how things would unfold. On the rare occasions when I stumble across the blog now, I can’t help noting an air of desperation and a frequent resort to name calling at those opposed to shale gas, perhaps because the much-anticipated frack bonanza in Europe seems to have fizzled, due to a combination of geology and popular opposition.

2014-12-26_17-19-37

For evidence of desperation, consider that Grealy has founded a company—London Local Energy —that has plans to frack under Downing Street. I’m inclined to dismiss this as a publicity stunt or even just a joke. Readers who disagree might want to go to the company’s website to find out how to invest. There should be some actual content there any day now. Perhaps Grealy will lay out the engineering and economics of multi-kilometre extended reach wells with multiple hydraulic fracturing stages. On the bright side, he probably won’t get any NIMBY objections from the current occupant of No 10.

[Added later: check out David Smythe’s blog for more details on the frack London concept.] Continue reading

AGU Fall Meeting 2014 poster presentation

I gave a poster presentation on December 16th  at the 2014 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The title is: Emissions of Water and Carbon Dioxide from Fossil-Fuel Combustion Contribute Directly to Ocean Mass and Volume Increases.

You can read the abstract here and I have uploaded a pdf of the poster here. There is a picture of the poster below, click on it to make it readable, although you will need to download the pdf to make out some of the fine print.

Poster2014a

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