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US non-conventional fossil fuel: environmental risks

In the US, extraction of non-conventional fossil fuels is booming. Investment in extra-heavy and heavy oils, oil shales and sands, tight oil and gas, shale gas and coal seam gas is taking off as companies…

The debate around the Keystone XL pipeline represents concern over the environmental effects of non-conventional fossil fuels. Flickr/shannonpatrick

In the US, extraction of non-conventional fossil fuels is booming. Investment in extra-heavy and heavy oils, oil shales and sands, tight oil and gas, shale gas and coal seam gas is taking off as companies and US governments look to reap the financial and political benefits.

But the boom comes with major environmental risks, from extraction, transport and fugitive emissions. In fact, just this week we have seen an Exxon oil spill in Arkansas, where an estimated 12,000 barrels of Canadian heavy crude oil were spilt into residential areas near the town of Mayflower from a 65-year-old pipeline.

To date, environmental and safety regulation of these fuels has been grossly inadequate. And yet there is pressure for still more cutting of “green tape”.

Environmental risks of extraction and transport

The threats from extraction are well known, and we’ve seen them in Australia as well as in the US. When under-regulated, the “fracking” process used to release natural gas and tight oil can threaten water quality. A major EPA safety report is due in 2014, but investment isn’t waiting. It’s proceeding strongly under the impetus of both market forces and pressure from the US Federal Government which is keen to encourage gas export, especially as LNG to Europe, to reduce Russia’s influence.

An issue Australia doesn’t face is the risk from heavy, corrosive, carbon-intensive oil from tar sands; in this case, extracted in Canada. In the US, Public concern about the multiple environmental risks associated with the extraction, processing and pipelining of this fuel is focused around a pending Federal decision about the Keystone (XL) pipeline. The State Department’s technical report was released on March 1. The environmental risks of such a pipeline were demonstrated by the Enbridge Energy case of 2010 and this week’s spill in Arkansas.

Apart from profit, potential pipeline approval is again driven by geopolitics. The pipeline would help maintain smooth relations with the Canadian Government but, as some suggest, also provides an alternative to heavy but conventional Venezuelan crude currently refined on the Mexican Gulf coast.

The Keystone pipeline has prompted mass environmental protests. Senior US Federal officials indicate that oil drilling in the North American Arctic may be blocked, with the Obama Administration citing ecological reasons. Though it remains contested, such a ban might be interpreted as a form of political “balance” to a Federal go-ahead for Keystone ─ or simply that the shale boom has put paid (for now) to this high cost Arctic option.

The role of natural gas in reducing emissions

In 2009, President Obama had pledged to reduce America’s energy-sector carbon emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 rather than the 9% now projected. A US projection suggests carbon emissions from the energy sector will remain lower than the 2005 peak level as far into the future as 2040 - even without any assumed price on such emissions. Significantly, this assumes ongoing replacement of coal-fired generation by gas-fired combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs). This reduction, still far less ambitious than the 2009 target, reflects continued abundant low-priced gas available from shale. However, there are questions about how long such low US gas prices can be sustained as international market pressures kick in.

CO2 emissions per KWh from combustion of natural gas in gas turbines are often said to be only half those from coal generation. However, intense debate ensues about the role of fugitive methane emissions from (shale) gas extraction - methane being a significantly more potent (but shorter-lived) greenhouse gas than CO2. In the case of internationally traded LNG, full life-cycle emission effects of delivery (pipeline and marine transport, refrigeration and so on) also need to be considered.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) sees natural gas, including non-conventional gas, as a global bridge to reduced emissions, acknowledging a global “golden age” of gas. However, it cautions on the need to apply a set of “golden rules” (strict environmental regulations) if this is to proceed safely and sustainably. Yet, as noted above, this regulation is seriously lagging in the US, as it evidently is in Australia.

Renewables and gas turbines are in many ways technically compatible forms of electricity generation. However, in a climate policy context, the IEA also warns of adverse consequences of low-priced gas expansion for renewable energy if existing government support for renewables were to be precipitately abandoned.

Immediate action needed on climate change risk

The IEA Executive Summary (p.3 of its World Energy Outlook 2012) expresses concern about inadequate national policy responses to mitigating climate change. The IEA’s “450 ppm” scenario sets out the kinds of changing energy mix necessary to achieve the goal of no more than 2°C average global temperature increase by 2050. It notes that if action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable emissions would be “locked-in” by the energy infrastructure existing at that time.

This sense of urgency must also apply to the policy context surrounding contentious but diverse forms of non-conventional petroleum. Apart from a sufficient price on greenhouse emissions, at least three priority actions are necessary in the US and internationally:

  • tight regulation of fugitive greenhouse emissions from shale gas, and of safety and pollution impacts
  • blocking, or pricing out of the market, highly polluting and CO2-intensive sources such as corrosive heavy oil processed from tar sands (discussed further in part 3)
  • reducing or stabilising global transport sector use of oil and gas products (whether from conventional or NCP sources) by ending consumer subsidies, ramping up excise tax rates where these are unduly low, and imposing compulsory vehicle fuel efficiency standards.

The IEA’s “450ppm” scenarios require much sharper proportionate reductions from affluent OECD countries, implying only a limited bridging role for gas but an essential role for renewables and for strong improvements in energy efficiency.

This is the second of a three-part series from Barry Naughten. Barry previously discussed US non-conventional petroleum’s economic and geopolitical effects.

Join the conversation

31 Comments sorted by

    1. In reply to Mike Hansen

      Comment removed by moderator.

    2. In reply to Mike Hansen

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    3. In reply to Mike Hansen

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    4. In reply to Mike Hansen

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  1. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    The US rush for "non-conventional" fuels is all about the US being free to tell the Sauds what they really think ... while Rupert Murdoch is still among us.

    As soon as he's gone, the US will be free to start getting off fossil fuels altogether.

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to David Arthur

      Plenty of people ready to take Rupert's place anywhere there is a buck to be made.

      This article states.....
      "inadequate national policy responses to mitigating climate change"

      I still think writers should separate climate change (a natural cycle) from an anthropogenic caused change in climate.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Plenty of people to take Rupert's place? You mean there are still lots of filthy rich wannabe media barons who are sufficiently non-cognisane of science to believe that the greenhouse effect is a commie/druggie/greenie/poofter/atheist plot?

      "writers should separate climate change (a natural cycle) from an anthropogenic caused change in climate"

      We know what would happen under what you term "natural cycle" climate change: the world would drift to a glaciated state with atmospheric CO2 declining…

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  2. Alex Cannara

    logged in via Facebook

    Burning anything for power has been foolhardy for decades, which is why the other article here on "The Last Frontier" looks at frontiers backwards -- they move toward us, more and more rapidly, as we display our ignorance of reality more and more powerfully.

    Thus, we have a debt of >500 billions tons of carbon unnaturally added to a planet's fluids, and less than 1/20 can be absorbed and recycled per year.

    Oops.

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  3. Mark Lawson

    senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

    The author dwells on the need to contain fugitive methane emissions which is fair enough, and I suppose the article was not really about methane emissions but I would have been interested in his take on the reasons why methane concentrations in the atmosphere seem to have stabilised.. As can be sseen on the graphs from CSIRO's Cape Grim measuring site they have upticked in recent years but still nothing like the increases of last century.. There have been suggestions that the stability is due to the leaks being fixed in the major European-Russian pipelines but I'd be interested in the author's take on it..

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    1. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to David Arthur

      But David, in the last decade and more the actual, measured increase has been barely worth mentioning. See the measurements for yourself. http://www.cmar.csiro.au/research/capegrim_graphs.html
      Just why methane concentrations haven't been doing much has been kicked around quite a bit. Whether the supposed contributions from methane escaping from permafrost or the arctic or whatever will have an appreciable effect on atmospheric concentrations remains to be seen. An uptick in the last few years but that's about it so far.

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      NOAA calculates a global average.

      "From 1999 to 2006, the CH4 burden was about constant, but since 2007, globally averaged CH4 has begun increasing again. "

      "Radiative forcing from CH4 increased from 2007 to 2011 after remaining nearly constant from 1999 to 2006."
      http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/

      This study found that "the observed leveling-off in atmospheric methane is largely a result of changes in fossil fuel use - specifically, reductions in fugitive emissions of natural gas that…

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      An uptick in the last few years but that's about it so far.

      My aunt had 50-odd years of healthy life, including living out her teenage years sunbathing at Coogee. Shortly after her 50th birthday, she noticed a tiny uptick in the form of a pin-sized blemish, a little dark spot, on her abdomen below her navel.

      "That's interesting, should I get it looked at?", she asked. A year later, it was about 5 mm across, and she died within a further four years. That was about 15 years ago.

      The point…

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    4. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike - sorry, but they wouldn't have any idea about just why the increase has occurred, as they don't know why it stopped and the increase seen in the past few years are far, far below the increases of last century which were built into the first lot of projections issued in 2001. (A revised lot were recently issued.) The scientist issuing warnings are making the best of what has turned out to b e bad forecasting. Look some increases have occurred!

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    5. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Alice - sorry, but go back and look at your own post. How would they know that the East Siberian ocean has methane at 10,000 times the normal rate? The link you cite doesn't mention anything about that. In any case, the original claim was that methane in the atmosphere is increasing. Well it isn't really happening is it. The increase seen in the past few years are far, far below the increases of last century which were built into the first lot of projections issued in 2001. (A revised lot were issued in 2011.) In your article, the scientist issuing warnings are making the best of what has turned out to be bad forecasting. Look some increases have occurred!

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    6. Mark Lawson

      senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

      In reply to David Arthur

      David - okay, now you're beginning to see my point. To continue the analogy all we have at the moment is a dark spot, but a lot of people have been declaring for years that we've been suffering from terminal cancer. The original forecasts for methane made in 2001 (they were revised in 2011) and based on the big increases evident last century have basically proved to be wrong in the short term .. Some increase has finally occurred but still far below the increases required for the apocalypse. Sure it can increase, or perhaps it may collapse again. Come back in a few years and we'll take a fresh set of scans.

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    7. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      Thanks Mark. To terminate your analogy, in the case of boreal methane emissions, we KNOW that it is temperature dependent, that the problem has appeared in the last decade or so, and that it is going to rapidly progress from now.

      You write "Sure it can increase, or perhaps it may collapse again."

      Only someone utterly oblivious to and ignorant of the driving processes could suggest that methane sublimation from boreal permafrost could collapse again.

      See, there's the difference between finance and science: whereas finance is all but too chaotic to make any predictions at all, science can discern long-term trends that remain true, irrespective of little blips. Celestial movements of planets and stars can be well-known centuries in advance, for example.

      Likewise, ice melts when it gets warm.

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    8. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Lawson

      The author's an energy economist, and you're asking him about his views natural processes?

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  4. Barry Naughten

    Energy political economist and international relations specialist at Australian National University

    My point about fugitive methane from shale gas operations was a very specific one. Namely, an important controversy ensues about the extent to which such emissions can or do offset or dilute the reductions in greenhouse emissions due to new CCGTs replacing old or displacing new) coal-fired power stations. Not being an expert in this field, in the article, I offered a sample of three research reports taking differing positions on this question.

    As not being directly relevant, I did not broach other…

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