Unconventional Shale Gas and Climate Change
As an avid user of Twitter (@PaGasLawGuy), one of the things I appreciate most about the service is the wide variety of timely information presented by the members that I follow. While scanning through my timeline recently I came across this post:
@NY1weather: Hot in the city? Since 1996, we've broken only 1 record low at Central Park while setting 48 record highs.
Though it’s not my intention to jump into the climate change debate, this struck me as interesting fact which highlights the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And this naturally leads an oil and gas attorney to reflect upon the advantages of using natural gas for energy production, rather than coal.
Those who follow issues related to Marcellus development are probably familiar with the conventional wisdom that use of natural gas for electricity production results in about fifty percent less greenhouse gas emissions than the use of coal. Aside from the reduction in emissions of mercury, sulfides and soot from coal, the substantial improvement in terms of climate impact has been touted as one of the important benefits resulting from development of domestic natural gas resources.
Or so we thought, until the release of a study by Robert Howarth from Cornell University which reached the surprising conclusion that unconventional natural gas had a larger greenhouse gas footprint than coal. This study looked at the lifetime emissions resulting from a hydraulically fractured gas well and was based on a series of assumptions, including a projection that up to eight percent of the methane from an unconventional gas well leaks into the atmosphere. That would be a very significant factor in the analysis because methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
The Howarth study was widely reported in the news media. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent environmental activist, has cited the study as a reason for backtracking on his previous endorsement of natural gas development. The study may even form the basis for policy decisions as Howarth has provided testimony for the European Parliament and the New York state legislature.
Now it appears that the Howarth study may have missed the mark. A number of subsequent reports refute the conclusions of the Howarth study and affirm that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal. This includes studies by Carnegie Mellon University, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, IHS-CERA and the University of Maryland. The former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, John Hanger, has summarized these studies nicely on his blog.
The final nail in the coffin may have been driven home by a different team of Cornell researchers in a paper that was recently published online. Characterizing the Howarth study as “misleading,” these researchers conclude that shale gas has a greenhouse gas footprint that is half and perhaps even a third that of coal.
These studies refuting the Howarth report are encouraging for those of us who are concerned about climate change and see hope in the development of domestic shale gas that can reduce dependence on foreign energy supplies while substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As anyone who even casually scans the news is aware, there are other potential environmental concerns associated with Marcellus development besides green house gas emissions. For landowners who have not yet signed an oil and gas lease, the ideal way to address many of those concerns is by working with a qualified attorney who can negotiate protections for the landowner in the lease. This may include provisions such as an environmental indemnity clause and restrictions on the right to use the property for drilling or disposal of wastewater. The gas planning team at Marshall, Parker & Associates is always committed to helping landowners protect their family and their property in the gas leasing process and also in dealing with the various issues that may arise after signing the lease.