Gas worse than coal?

Flaring, a common practice that shows capturing natural gas isn't always economical.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the new study that says natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing has a greater climate impact than coal.

The Hill obtained an advance copy of the research, by Cornell professor Robert Howarth, and published it in a blog post Monday morning.

Thing is, this isn’t the first time the question of climate impacts from natural gas has come up. There has been a wide scattering of media coverage on the issue over the last year, most — if not all of it — based on Howarth’s research.

So what may appear as a building consensus is, in fact, widespread reaction to a single paper.

The New York Times notes that Howarth is “an opponent of growing gas development in western New York.”

On the other hand, the industry is not a fan of Howarth, either. The Independent Petroleum Producers of America in September vigorously opposed Howarth’s appointment to an EPA panel on hydraulic fracturing because of his “strong and unambiguous antipathy toward shale development in general, and hydraulic fracturing in particular.”

Coming full circle, the source of the IPPA’s complaint was Howarth’s research into the lifecycle greenhouse gas impact of fracking – work the IPPA claimed was “riddled with errors” in its early stages.

The fact that the gas industry roundly disputes Howarth’s findings, of course, is hardly proof that those findings are incorrect (or correct, for that matter). It just illustrates the difficulty of drawing any solid conclusions from a single piece of research.

Even Howarth acknowledges that more work needs to be done.

“I don’t think this is the end of the story,” said Howarth. “I think this is just the beginning of the story, and before governments and the industry push ahead on gas development, at the very least we ought to do a better job of making measurements.”

One of the industry’s objections is that it wouldn’t make economic sense to let large amounts of gas escape into the atmosphere. But it only makes sense to capture that gas if it can be done profitably.

An imperfect, but parallel example comes from the oil fields of North Dakota. Last year, the Bismarck Tribune editorial board – reliable boosters of the state’s oil industry – lambasted drillers for flaring off large amounts of natural gas rather than recover it. A low price for natural gas reduces the incentive for the industry to capture waste.

Howarth’s study is guaranteed to stir debate, and that debate is more than likely going to break down along the same lines as hydraulic fracturing itself – already a divisive and emotionally charged issue in energy and environmental circles.

But it doesn’t seem to be Howarth’s intent to demonize any particular energy source. As he told Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard, “I find it surprising that the nation would rush ahead on developing this a transitional fuel without doing a better job of looking at its greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s too soon to tell what this means for the energy picture, but it’s a good reminder not to take assumptions at face value.

Photo by Rick Hurdle via Creative Commons

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