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.


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.


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Dreadful GSA blogpost by Canadian geologists

Geologists, especially those, like me, of a certain age, often have problems with climate science and the idea that humans may be triggering a massive and abrupt change in the climate. Global change, we were taught, occurred slowly and by commonplace mechanisms: sediment carried by water, deposited a grain at a time: erosion effected by water and wind, the hardest rocks slowly ground down crystal by crystal. The great features of the Earth—the canyons, mountains and basins—were built this way and owe their grandeur to Deep Time, geology’s greatest intellectual gift to human culture. In the face of the history of the natural world, geologists feel a certain humility at the insignificance of humans and our tiny lifespans. But we also feel some pride in the role of our subject in piecing together this history from fossils and outcrops of rock. It’s an amazing detective story: diligent scientists patiently working away and uncovering the Earth’s great secrets.


Then climate science comes along and grabs all the headlines. Suddenly, we hear, change is coming fast and the outcome could be ugly. The familiar music of natural geological change is about to be disrupted by a noisy interruption in the form of human intervention. To add insult to injury, many of the people delivering this disruptive message do not seem—at least to some geologists—to be sufficiently deferential to the extensive knowledge about the slow and cyclic changes in the geological past.

This is quite false, as I found out for myself. My initial reaction many years ago to hearing about climate change was one of disbelief, mixed with a strong suspicion that the climate forecasters had neglected to take the lessons of Earth history into account. I soon found out that I was completely wrong about this. I confess also, as I read the scientific literature, that I learned more about modern geology than I had in many years working as an industrial geoscientist. Unknown to me, immersed in my own areas of specialty, geology had moved on, especially in palaeoclimatology.

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Keystone XL: Oil Markets and Emissions

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on September 1st, 2014

  • Estimates of the incremental emission effects of individual oil sands projects like the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline are sensitive to assumptions about the response of world markets and alternative transportation options.
  • A recent Nature Climate Change paper by Erickson and Lazarus concludes that KXL may produce incremental emissions of 0-110 million tonnes of CO2per year, but the article has provoked some controversy.
  • Comments by industry leaders and the recent shelving of a new bitumen mining project suggest that the expansion of the oil sands may be more transportation constrained and more exposed to cost increases than is sometimes assumed.
  • Looking at the longer-term commitment effects of new infrastructure on cumulative emissions supports the higher-end incremental estimates.

President Obama (BBC) has made it clear that the impact of the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline on the climate will be critical in his administration’s decision on whether the pipeline will go ahead or not.  However, different estimates of the extra carbon emissions that the pipeline will cause vary wildly. For example, the consultants commissioned by the US State Department estimated that the incremental emissions would be 1.3 to 27.4 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) annually. In contrast, John Abraham, writing in the Guardian (and again more recently), estimated that the emissions would be as much as 190 MtCO2 annually, about seven times the State Department’s high estimate (calculation details here).

The variation in the estimates arises from the assumptions made. The State Department consultants assumed that the extra oil transported by the pipeline would displace oil produced elsewhere, so that we should only count the difference between the life-cycle emissions from the shut-in light oil and those of the more carbon-intensive bitumen. In addition, they estimated that not building KXL would mean that bitumen would instead be transported by rail, at slightly higher transportation costs. Abraham simply totted up all of the production, refining and consumption emissions of the 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) pipeline capacity and did not consider any effect of the extra product on world oil markets.

Neither set of assumptions is likely to be correct. Increasing the supply of any product will have an effect on a market, lowering prices and stimulating demand (consumption) growth. Lower prices will reduce supply somewhere.  The question is: by how much?

An interesting new paper in Nature Climate Change (paywalled, but there is an open copy of an earlier version available here) by Peter Erickson and Michael Lazaruares ,attempts to answer this question. The authors are based in the Seattle office of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
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Don’t Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change—a book review

George Marshall has written a book that is essential reading for everyone interested in communicating the science of climate change and its urgent policy implications. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change comprises 43 short and well-written chapters that explain why  strenuous efforts to spread the word and spur action on climate change have failed.

There is no question that the problem is far from licked: the Keeling Curve continues its upward rise; American conservatives remain stuck in an intellectual dead end on climate; other countries pay lip service to the threat while making only token gestures to solve it; every year there is a big international get-together at COP meetings where thousands of delegates gather to push the policy boulder up Sisyphus’ hill, only to watch it roll down again. Opinion polls, it is true, show that there is broad public acceptance of the scientific basis of climate change, but the understanding of the problem is shallow. People say they care about climate change, but when it comes time to vote, other issues loom larger.

Marshall has worked for 25 years as a campaigner in environmental movements, including Greenpeace US and the Rainforest Foundation. He is a co-founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, a UK based charity committed to ensuring that climate change and its impacts are understood and acted upon. Continue reading