Sunday, August 4, 2013

Shale gas vs coal is the wrong question


Quick: Which is worse, a carjacking or a rape?

I know what you're thinking, but suppose the carjacking involved a gun, whereas the rape was "just" statutory rape between a sixteen-year-old and her nineteen-year-old boyfriend?

To be fair, though, neither of these examples is probably quite representative of the "typical" carjacking or rape. Perhaps we ought to assess the badness of each act based upon a weighed average of the typical circumstances of the two crimes, respectively, and only then give our opinion about which is "worse," per se. Then again, it is possible that the social stigma that has historically been associated with the victims of rape causes that crime to be systematically underreported, leading to a biased sample.

At this point we could do some philosophical heavy lifting involving definitions, sources of data, and standards of badness, all as a preface to an open-ended debate with other people who made different assumptions or preferred other data sets. Or, just putting it out there, we could ask ourselves why the fuck we care.

As the astute reader can probably discern, I'm losing interest in the question of whether shale gas or coal is worse for the climate. This is an unfamiliar experience for us here at IT; more typically, we find ourselves worrying the bone of a topic whilst other, more responsible commentators have long since satisfied themselves that there's not an atom of meat left to scavenge (can you say, Scott Armstrong's climate "bet"?)

But I'm about ready to be done with this one, and the reasons are fairly simple:

1. The answer is heavily dependent on the initial assumptions you chose. Both the facts (the leak rate[1]) and the value judgments (how far into the future should we look to compare the effects of CO2 and methane [2]) remain hotly disputed. It is also laughably easy to stack the deck by comparing new natural gas to old coal, or old natural gas to new coal, or heating capacity vs electrical generation, none of which choices are clearly right or wrong and all of which, given a large energy sector and enough time, will describe some set of power plants, somewhere.

2. Even if we could reach a final a definitive answer to the question, we would still be left with the reality than coal has a bunch of other negative externalities, most crucially, the particulate pollution kills people. As vitally important as climate change is, you can't just pretend all the other costly, deadly, and environmentally destructive consequences of coal mining and coal burning don't exist.

3. Like a lot of questions that suck up time and energy in the climate debate, this one fails to inform the discussion of the only question which, in the final analysis, matters at all: Will our society and the global civilization to which it belongs succeed in undertaking collective political action (commensurate with scale of the challenge) to limit global warming and abort the Business as Usual scenario? 

If we will, there are numerous tools and technologies close at hand to speed our transition, which might or might not include some shale gas. If we won't, if we are determined to rely on blind chance in the form of a distorted profit motive coupled with an unchecked tragedy of the commons to deliver us, we will bring down devastating climate change upon ourselves, and whether the cheap shale gas that energy companies pried out of the ground purely in the name of corporate profits happened to be  somewhat better or somewhat worse for the climate than coal will be the definition of irrelevance.

1) So what's the leak rate, really? Very recently, the EPA estimated 2.3%, but this was revised downward to 1.4%. On the other hand, direct measurements of leakage from gas fields often come in quite a bit higher, as in the recent study that found leakage from 6.2% to 11.7%. This followed another study from 2012 that found leakage rates of 4% at a field near Denver.

When your estimates of a quantity from various credible sources differ by an order of magnitude, I think it's fair to suggest that we do not have a firm grasp on the final number.

Note, too, that it is not just the wells that leak. The downstream infrastructure is full of leaks as well, and this may account for a third of the estimated fugitive emissions.

This naturally raises the question: couldn't we fix that leaky infrastructure if we wanted to? (Yes, we could.) For that matter, couldn't we strictly regulate and monitor shale gas developments to force companies to keep their fugitive emissions low, or risk hefty fines? (Seems to discourage oil spills.) And might that alter the calculus of whether the substitution of gas for coal brings important climate benefits? (Of course it could.)

This is why I say the central question is not which energy source is "better," but whether or not we have the will to take collective political action to make the situation better.

2) The latest marker in this debate was laid down by Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate giant by any definition, but one who in this case, in my opinion, has not got things quite right. He says:
The important thing to understand is that essentially all of the climate effects of methane emissions disappear within 20 years of cessation of emissions; in this sense, the climate harm caused by methane leakage is reversible. In contrast, CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, ratcheting up the temperature irreversibly, at least out to several millennia. Therefore, if switching to natural gas from coal reduces the amount of CO2 you emit, you can tolerate quite a large amount of leakage and still come out ahead, because the warming caused by the leakage will go away quickly once you eventually stop using natural gas (and other fossil fuels), whereas the warming you would get from all the extra CO2 you’d pump out if you stuck with coal would stay around forever.
One can quibble with some of Pierrehumbert's facts here; the breakdown of methane in twenty years or so depends on how much of the stuff is in the atmosphere to begin with; some of the reactions are subject to saturation kinetics. These can extend the life of methane in the atmosphere by a factor of three or more, albeit at concentrations far higher than today's.

But the important problem here is logical, not factual. Pierrehumbert's absolutely right that looking at the earth in a thousands years or so, the amount of methane that leaks today is not going to have any influence on the amount of radiative forcing the earth is experiencing. Whereas a significant bit of the CO2 released today will still by present in the atmosphere, warming the planet every minute of every day right out through the year 3,000 anno domini and beyond.

The problem, as I've said, is with the logic. When you define your vantage point as "thousands of years in the future" or even hundreds of years, you can discount the radiative effects of methane today. But from that vantage point, looking down on oceans that have swallowed dozens of the world's great cities, in the aftermath of wars over water and food, with three-quarters of all mammals extinct, from that vantage point, all fossil fuel burning looks like a crime against humanity. If future Ray from the year 3,000 gets a vote, he may very well not give two straws for the methane leaks, but he will veto the carbon dioxide released by burning shale gas.

This is perhaps a more subtle point than is usually to be found on this frankly pugilistic blog, so let me restate it in the form of an analogy:
You are in the emergency room suffering with some abdominal pain. Your doctor comes in to share the good news that all your tests are negative and you will be going home, after one more (ludicrously expensive) CT scan. When you ask why this is needed, she tells you "Oh, it's going to be a big help in a couple of days, when you come back in with overwhelming sepsis on the brink of death."
The proposed CT scan makes no sense because you either are or are not sick: it makes no sense to take some actions based on the idea that you are fine (discharging you home) and others based on the belief that you are extremely ill (an expensive scan after your other tests were negative.)

Similarly, if you are the kind of person who thinks the state of things in the year 3,000 is critically important, then you are welcome to be indifferent to methane leaks, but by the same token, no fossil fuel burning should be even a little bit acceptable to you -- you, the far-future person, suffering from the effects of our stupid and thoughtless abuse of our shared life support system even after we knew the likely consequences -- future you will look at gas' lesser amount of CO2 per Kwh of electricity in the way we, in 2013, look at slave owners that only whipped their slaves after a fair and impartial hearing. That is, far-future you will recognize one of these things as theoretically more awful than the other, but regard the activity as a whole as so morally repugnant as to make the distinction academic, at best.


  1. Hooray!

    The Idiot Magnet strikes again.

    What a badly written post lacking in any scientific or intellectual clarity.

    This is the usual quality of Robert's trolling.

    I'm glad to see that he is attracting comments at a stellar rate.

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  2. "The Idiot Magnet strikes again"

    You do appreciate the irony in that claim? Perhaps not. It seems likely that Mr Anonymous is dumber than a bag of hammers.

    1. I like how he proclaims himself the arbiter of "scientific or intellectual clarity." It's cute when they try to sound educated. ;)

  3. Yes. We are out of good choices.

    I feel the same about nuclear. I have tried reading the articles at Brave New Climate but hanging out with the nuclear cultists is like what I imagine attending a scientology convention would be like.

    But hard to see how we can decarbonise globally without at least some contribution from nuclear.

    1. The nuke-renewables snipefest is definitely on my list of tooth-grinding irritations.

      On the one hand you have the nuke folks, who do stupid things like total up all the land that would be needed to power the world with solar panels as -- seriously, this is a direct quote -- creating "renewable wastelands."

      On the other hand you have the solar-wind people, who can be just as irrational if not usually as rude and socially inept. And they'll say things like "Nukes are very unpopular. People don't want them. We're winning the battle of public opinion!" which of course is exactly what climate deniers say about carbon taxes. "It's unpopular" of course does not translate to "It's wrong."

      What I would like to see is a large-scale test of the concepts behind a nuclear build-out. Take one of the new passive designs, streamline regulatory approval, and have one company rapidly build ten of them. See how safely, cheaply, and quickly you can build.

    2. Take one of the new passive designs, streamline regulatory approval, and have one company rapidly build ten of them. See how safely, cheaply, and quickly you can build.

      China is doing approximately that, albeit with the not-so-new AP1000 design. We shall see. And BTW building is only the start. Building safely is easy enough.

      BTW there was a reactor proposal in Britain to burn up their plutonium stock, basically a dare by General Electric. Perhaps the British should have just taken it, as it would replace much speculation by some data.

    3. Thanks for the tip about the AP1000 reactors; I'll look into that.

  4. > which of course is exactly what climate deniers say about carbon taxes

    True enough... but the difference is that some sort of price on carbon, or limitation on carbon emissions, is inevitable. There is, quite literally, no alternative, and while nobody likes paying taxes, there is nothing like hard opposition motivated by fear.

    For nuclear as a replacement for fossil-fuel generated electricity, renewables are now a known-working alternative (though with their own warts, like cost). In this perspective the widespread resistance to nuclear, objectively justified or not, becomes a relevant risk factor. You have to choose your battles.

    1. I get what you're saying. My point is simply that no one should resort to what is essentially an argumentum ad populum to abort a discussion of the options available.

      Taken to the logical extreme, this becomes a critique of almost any reform in a democratic society -- the popular approach is, presumably, the one already being followed.

      Instead, I think we should look at unpopular ideas on their merits and see if they are compelling enough to justify fighting to make them more popular.

    2. The major "wart" on renewables is that they produce a small fraction of the power required to underpin modern society. When they do produce power, it is often at the wrong time and when they don't it is at a time when power is needed.

      The problem with Greens is that they can't do maths and anything that works is an anathema.

    3. "The major "wart" on renewables is that they produce a small fraction of the power required to underpin modern society."

      So does nuclear. So does gas, for that matter. The relevant question is whether they have the potential to supply a large proportion of energy we need. They do.

      "When they do produce power, it is often at the wrong time and when they don't it is at a time when power is needed."

      I would say "sometimes" rather than "often": solar, for example, typically peaks around the same time demand peaks.

      Intermittancy becomes an issue when renewables climb past 40% of the energy supplied to a smart grid. That point is some ways away, unfortunately, but when and if what get there, there are many options for solving the problem of intermittancy: large scale energy storage, more baseload renewables (hydro, geothermal, tidal, deep ocean current turbines, space-based solar, etc) and so on.

      "The problem with Greens is that they can't do maths and anything that works is an anathema."

      And the problem with Browns (besides their tendency to make sweeping generalizations and blanket condemnations based on stereotypes) is that they have only the vaguest idea about the science and technology involved in reforming the energy sector and persistently confuse "What emotionally appeals to me" with "What works."

    4. Reading your comments on Climate atc, you appear have a dislike of electrical engineers. Electricity generation is an electrical engineering problem but you don't seem to have a clue:

      1) Large scale energy storage??? How? Hydro - not much do the maths.

      2) Deep ocean current turbines?? Reliability? Power transmission? Actual output from an engineeringly feasible installation? Do the maths.

      3)Space based solar? Great! How big an installation do you need in orbit? What is its mass compared to the International space station. How do you get it up there? Do the maths.

      This is just green BS.

      p.s.: I am an engineer but not an electrical engineer - I can do the maths!

    5. "Reading your comments on Climate atc, you appear have a dislike of electrical engineers."

      Not at all. I have the highest possible regard for electrical engineers. I do dislike climate deniers. I do think that some climate deniers who are also engineers very foolishly try to argue from authority, citing their engineering training as having put them in a position to uncover the startling fact that 97% of publishing climate scientists are wrong about a whole series of critical points of climate science.

      Do you want botanists designing your transformers? No more should you expect electrical engineers to have any more expertise in climate science than any other interested amateur. Best to make your points and support them with evidence, and not provoke an argument from authority which you will lose.

      "Large scale energy storage??? How? Hydro - not much do the maths."

      You repeat that phrase several times -- "do the maths" -- but you don't do any actual math. This is characteristic of the misguided argument from authority I mentioned above "I am an engineer . . . - I can do the maths!" Well, prove it. Lay out some numbers for us.

      Hydro power generates quite a lot of energy, and it is baseload power. It's not likely to ever be half or even a quarter of our energy supply, but it doesn't need to be.

      As to how you do large scale energy storage, there are a number of ways, of course. I'm surprised you're not familiar with any of them. Are you unable, despite your engineering expertise, to think of any way to store large amounts of electrical power? If you are really saying you have no idea how this could be done, I'd be happy to enlighten you. But if you apply yourself to the problem, I think you'll see it's not nearly so difficult as you seem to think.

      "Space based solar? Great! How big an installation do you need in orbit? What is its mass compared to the International space station. How do you get it up there? Do the maths."

      Interesting you should ask that. Again, before I answer, I'm going to ask you if you really have no idea how these problems could be addressed. I have some ideas, but I'm interested to hear what you think.

  5. You have badly overestimated your importance, if you think your generic whining and ludicrously predictable and brainless insults will tempt my to speculate as to your name. You're a generic ignorant denier; that's who you are.

    If you are hungry for a higher level of engagement, as it would seem from your repeated comments on a post you claimed couldn't attract comments (a nice irony there) I suggest you try to the best of your limited abilities to make some sort of meaningful contribution relating to the topic at hand.

    Make yourself useful, and I might even grow interested in who you are! You're not there yet, sadly.

  6. This is from a different anonymous.

    I saw your disgusting post about Judith Curry. What can you have been thinking of?

    I suggest readers search "mathturbation" and judge whether this twit should be taken seriously.

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  8. Thanks for clarifying who is responding. I wish everyone was as courteous. I certainly have no interest in anyone's names, but it would be nice if people would chose a handle to distinguish between the various anonymi.

    Sorry you felt that the Curry post was "disgusting." Care to explain why?

  9. Ist Anonymous says:
    In the hysteria following Fukushima, Germany decided to close down their nuclear reactors and let renewables take up the slack.

    After pause for rflection, the German Government discovered that renewables er .... couldn't.

    Therefore Germany, the greenest of green in Europe, is building 21 new coal fired power stations to use locally available lignite.

    This is reality, not some green fantasy.

    1. Not true. Nukes are being closed down and still renewables are pushing out coal.

      About the future of coal, see this.

      "... Poyry’s analysis suggests coal faces diminishing load factors in Germany due to renewable energy policies which give dispatch priority to renewables, and Poyry do not expect to see additional unabated coal and lignite projects coming forward in Germany."

      That, my friend, is reality.

    2. So, they are not building new coal fired power stations?

    3. Do you understand the difference between correlation and causality?

    4. That was a rhetorical question. The correct answer is 'only when it suits me'

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