Natural Gas and Climate Instability: A Response to the Eagle Ford Shale Forum

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The sun sets behind a pump jack near Midland, TX. The oil and gas industry has many parts, from exploration and extraction (“upstream”) to processing and transportation (“downstream”), which often happen in close proximity to one another. These active wells are mere yards from wells being developed. Ryan Hill, Epidemiologist, NIOSH Alaska Pacific Regional Office.

The sun sets behind a pump jack near Midland, TX. The oil and gas industry has many parts, from exploration and extraction (“upstream”) to processing and transportation (“downstream”), which often happen in close proximity to one another. These active wells are mere yards from wells being developed. Ryan Hill, Epidemiologist, NIOSH Alaska Pacific Regional Office.

Lanny Sinkin. Photo from Solar San Antonio.

The Eagle Ford Shale Forum on Tuesday was more important for what was not discussed than for the topics covered.

[Read the Rivard Report’s coverage of the forum: “Eagle Ford Forum II: Sustaining the Boom and Averting the Bust.”]

In the currently accepted boundaries of energy discussion, one can be critical of natural gas.  At forums like this one, a wide range of complications are presented to discuss; the economic impacts of natural gas development on economically distressed regions, the need for financing, funding, fair tax distribution, housing, emergency response, health care, schools, available trained work force, lodging, restaurants, traffic management, road repair and water management. A long list, indeed.

These are all impacts that can be mitigated or prevented without threatening the viability of the overall natural gas enterprise.  These substantive concerns received ample attention at the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum’s panel this week.

EAGLEfordShaleEIA

There is one concern about natural gas, however, that overrides all others – the impact of burning natural gas on climate.  This substantive concern is rarely mentioned despite its deserving the highest priority.

Green house gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, and global warming received passing mention at the Forum, but not, however, as a fundamental challenge to pursuing the natural gas option.

If the issue is discussed, the usual offering by the natural gas industry is that natural gas burning emits half the carbon dioxide as does coal burning. The problem with that response is that such gases are still emitted.

consumption_emissions_pie

There is also the impact of methane that escapes in the natural gas production process.  Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The Forum did bring to light that the escape of 3.4% of the produced gas will make natural gas climate impacts as serious as those from coal.  Some studies suggest far larger releases are taking place.

Overall, the natural gas versus coal discussion is a misdirection.  What that discussion is missing is the following:

  • The gases being released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels accumulate, rather than dissipate.  The carbon dioxide released today will stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and continue trapping heat that would otherwise have been radiated back into space.  Slowing the rate of gas build up does nothing to prevent further warming.
  • A Hurricane Sandy may break all sorts of records today and be the common expression of hurricanes tomorrow. Even though burning natural gas releases half the carbon dioxide that is released by burning coal, the additional carbon dioxide from burning natural gas is still making the future worse.
  • Natural gas pricing does not include the cost of climate instability.  Damage from Hurricane Sandy may reach $50 billion. The fossil fuel industry is not going to pay that cost.  Nor will that cost appear in the bills people pay for electricity generated by fossil fuels.  All the natural gas cost discussion is about costs of production, not harmful impacts from climate instability.  Instead, those climate costs are socialized with everyone paying the damages or left to the individuals suffering the damages to pay for themselves.  Making energy decisions based on the current method of calculating billing cost is deceptive.

Do we have time to make a detour to natural gas while deciding our energy future?

On the day of the Forum, San Antonio experienced the highest temperature for that date by two degrees.  The massive heat wave met a powerful storm front setting off wild weather across the country.  Such extreme events are becoming the norm.

The Chief Economist and Director of the International Energy Agency, , issued a warning that our current energy practices will cause the global average temperature to rise over 6 degrees higher than preindustrial levels by 2040 – 28 years from now.  The Agency predicts a rise of 7.2 degrees by 2050 and 10.8 by 2100.

From Eco Shock Radio:

In his book, “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet,” and the National Geographic series based on the book, Mark Lynas says at (+7.2 degrees F) “Southern Europe will become unlivable due to extreme heat. The West Antarctic ice sheet will melt away and add another (15 feet) global sea level.”

At (+10.8 degrees F), the Amazon forest long ago burned in a giant fireball, and all the polar ice melted, Lynas simply says, “we will all be dead.”

The disinformation campaign paid for by the fossil fuel industry can pretend that there is something debatable about the climate science.  The scientific consensus, however, is in place and the evidence appears on a daily basis.

The drought in Texas, the fires in Colorado, the impact of Hurricane Sandy, and similar events internationally are breaking through the fog of the disinformation campaign and awakening people to the true price of reliance on fossil fuels.

Texas lost 500 million rural trees and more than 2.5 million urban trees to the drought.  While living, those millions of trees performed numerous functions, including taking carbon out of the air, producing oxygen, and maintaining the health of the soil surrounding them.  When the trees are gone and the ecosystems supported by the tree dead, the dust storms will commence.

The CEO of Exxon-Mobil admitted that carbon emissions are causing climate change.  His response was that we simply have to adapt.  He showed no signs of remorse that his company played a major role in both contributing to the massive disruptions we will see and to introducing confusion that prevented an adequate response to either counteract or mitigate those disruptions decades ago.

The sun sets behind a pump jack near Midland, TX. The oil and gas industry has many parts, from exploration and extraction (“upstream”) to processing and transportation (“downstream”), which often happen in close proximity to one another. These active wells are mere yards from wells being developed. Ryan Hill, Epidemiologist, Alaska Pacific Regional Office

The sun sets behind a pump jack near Midland, TX. The oil and gas industry has many parts, from exploration and extraction (“upstream”) to processing and transportation (“downstream”), which often happen in close proximity to one another. These active wells are mere yards from wells being developed.
Ryan Hill, Epidemiologist, NIOSH Alaska Pacific Regional Office.

For those truly following both climate events and scientific analysis, the debate now is whether it is too late to prevent run away scenarios and, if so, what do we do about that.

If we focused on the real problem, we might well decide that something like a Marshall Plan is necessary to substitute as much renewable power for fossil fuels as possible throughout the world.  And a Manhattan Project approach is warranted to bring energy storage solutions for wind and solar to the mass distribution level as quickly as possible.  A massive public education campaign would be helpful to enlist everyone in doing something to reduce and ultimately reverse the build up of greenhouse gases.  Some form of carbon tax is also appropriate to encourage energy conservation and transition to renewables.

Unfortunately, this most important topic did not make the list of issues discussed at the Eagle Ford Shale Forum, so there was no discussion of potential responses to the crisis breaking around us.

Or we could just give up and do nothing, just accept the “new abnormal.

Lanny Sinkin is executive director of the non-profit Solar San Antonio. He also is a San Antonio native, former Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate and lawyer who co-founded the Aquifer Protection Association with his mother, the late Fay Sinkin, and coordinated a city-wide initiative that put the first aquifer protection measure on the San Antonio ballot in 1976.  Follow Lanny and Solar San Antonio on Twitter, @solarsanantonio, or check them out on Facebook.

Related stories on the Rivard Report:

Eagle Ford Forum II: Sustaining the Boom and Averting the Bust January 2013

Eagle Ford Heyday: Economic Boom Obscures Long-Term Issues December 2012

The Texas Lege: Do the Right Thing, Please January 2013

Higher Water Rates for a Sustainable Future October 2012

‘Old Man Water’: A Longtime Observer Surveys the San Antonio Landscape October 2012

2 thoughts on “Natural Gas and Climate Instability: A Response to the Eagle Ford Shale Forum

  1. A recent United Nations report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explains that the four temperature models used from 1990 to 2012 overestimated the warming of the earth. These same models were used by the majority of climate change experts to explain current events and predict future outcomes. This report and several others make arguments about the cause of climate change and whether it is due to recent industrial efforts or if it’s a natural occurrence.

    Until a decision is made that delivers all facts and information related to climate change the best thing to do is continue to adapt to survive like we have always done and forever will. Japan is recovering from the tsunami and they have created new infrastructure to face new challenges. Norway is still building homes on the water itself. New Orleans has created new levies that will help as well as built redundancies in their plans to deal with new hurricanes. For now the discussion should wait. Who’s ready for solutions?

  2. Correction – The Netherlands continues to reclaim land from the sea and build homes on the water. If you ever visit Europe, go there!

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