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Friday, May 3, 2013

CSIS publishes important report on unconventional gas development

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.  that conducts research and policy analysis, has published a study: Realizing the Potential of U.S. Unconventional Natural Gas that seeks to capture the latest understanding of the unconventional gas development picture and develop themes and findings in the hope of facilitating an informed discussion on a path forward.”

The report’s Executive Summary presents six key findings: 
  1. The unconventional gas resource base is “enormous and readily available”, but industry and regulators “are in the early stages of learning how to optimize it.
  2. The development of the resource can create jobs, spur manufacturing, and create economic growth.
  3. Current supply of natural gas outpaces demand. Energy policies and natgas exports will stabilize development.
  4. There are no “show-stoppers” - unmanageable risks that would require reconsideration of current practices - but “understanding the risks and evolving cost-effective risk management approaches is a long-term, continuous process.  Public concern will continue to be “an important driver” of both public policy and commercial practices.
  5. Technology innovation is key to resource development, risk management, reducing environmental impact of development, and growing demand for natural gas.
  6. Public acceptance of unconventional gas development “is a critical issue, and the ability to manage risks must be demonstrated.”  Failure to gain this acceptance has resulted in moratoria or development or delays.  Transparency and available data are key. “Ultimately, communities must feel as though their interests are protected and advanced by the presence of unconventional gas development.” 
Continuous improvement is a recurring theme.  The paper makes these recommendations for states:

  • Primary regulatory responsibility lies with states, because of the diversity of geology, hydrology, and other factors.  However, “this does not preclude” federal oversight or setting of minimum standards.
  • States should review and update their regulations “to ensure the most effective standards are in place”on an ongoing basis. 
  • Auditing state regulations by third parties should be enhanced to assist regulators and build public confidence.
  • Publicly available data on drilling – including baseline data on water, air, seismicity – must be continually enhanced and improved.
  • State level regulation, engagement, and study must be transparent.
  • Adopt a comprehensive, holistic approach to issue management

The paper makes these recommendations for Federal action:
  • Set a detailed energy narrative for the country that articulates clear role for natural gas.
  • Finalize studies and regulations.
  • Ensure coordination of federal agencies with natgas roles and monitor key issues. 
  • Use key federal agencies to get more and improved data on cumulative impacts. 
  • Promote R&D to improve resource recovery and environmental performance; and explore industrial and vehicle use. 
  • Make a decision on natgas exports
  • Improve regulatory certainty by facilitating collaboration among states, industry, and technology providers to develop best practices and regionally applicable regulations.

The paper makes these recommendations for industry:
  • “Companies must operate at the highest standard.” 
  • Develop, implement, and communicate best practices. 
  • Continually improve technology to reduce risks. 
  • Fully, transparently, and continually engage communities.

The report is a useful guide that meets its aim.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Report: Half of U.S. shale wells drilled in water-stressed regions

A new report from the non-profit sustainability organization Ceres finds that nearly half of the 25,000 U.S. oil and gas wells that were drilled in 2011-2012 and that employ hydraulic fracturing have been drilled in water-stressed areas.

HydraulicFracturing and Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water (registration required) finds that it’s not just in drought-plagued areas like Texas and Colorado:

"Even in wetter regions of the northeast United States, dozens of water permits granted to operators had to be withdrawn last summer due to low levels in environmentally vulnerable headwater streams."

The study says that the use of recycled water – which “can only go so far in solving water sourcing problems since much of the injected water remains in the formation” - and alternative sources of water like acid mine drainage in Pennsylvania is growing, “but “must increase considerably to make a significant impact.” And: 

Given projected sharp increases in (oil and gas) production in the coming years and the potentially intense nature of local water demands, competition and conflicts over water should be a growing concern for companies, policymakers, and investors.

The report calls for  “across the board” measurement and disclosure of sources of water, amounts withdrawn, and the amounts of flowback and produced water that returns to the surface.

The bottom line: shale energy development cannot grow without water, but in order to do so the industry’s water needs and impacts need to be better understood, measured and managed.  A key question investors should be asking is whether water management planning is getting sufficient attention from both industry and regulators.

The Ceres report raises obvious - and increasingly urgent - issues.  But it accepts the status quo and misses another key question – are there alternatives to using water for fracturing shale? Growing costs of and competitive pressures for water, disposal issues, droughts, and climate disruption – which is already altering the global water cycle – plus the contamination risks embodied by spills and leaks of flowback and produced water – argue for a new business calculus in oil and gas exploration and production, and the development of a business case for waterless fracking.

New Energy Dimensions article posted

Energy Dimensions has published my recent blog post: Whistling in the Dark on Energy and Emissions.

Is energy from wood really carbon neutral? And is that reason enough to use it?

The US Energy Information Administration has forecast that biomass energy production in the U.S. will grow from 8 percent in 2009 to 15 percent by 2035, driven mainly by state renewable fuel standards. Seen as a tool to combat climate change, biomass energy is generally assumed to be carbon neutral - that, for example, carbon emitted into the atmosphere when biomass is burned for energy generation will be recaptured by plant growth. 

But is burning wood from forests to generate electricity really carbon neutral?

Resources for the Future (RFF) has published a study - Comparative Life Cycle Assessments: Carbon Neutrality and Wood Biomass Energy  that seeks to answer that question.

And the answer is – it depends.

Different studies use different methodologies and different assumptions, RFF says, affecting conclusions. Further, some studies ignore the fundamental element of time:

“although net emissions may be zero over long time periods, they often will not be zero in shorter time periods...Thus, the implication is that the use of wood biomass for energy will imply no net forest emissions to the atmosphere given adequate regeneration and sufficient time.”

Think less than 100 years as “shorter time periods.” The world could be 11 degrees warmer before then.

Whether forest stands used for electricity feedstocks are sustainably managed - another big “if” - greatly impacts carbon neutrality, according to RFF.

And there are other problems to consider besides carbon neutrality when using humans’ most primitive source of external energy for 21st century purposes. Wood-fired electricity generation emits more CO2 per unit of energy generated than fossil fuel facilities, and significant levels of other air pollutants. And forests provide multiple additional ecosystem services – a term I actually dislike because it reduces valuation of forests to mostly utilitarian terms – like cleaning the air and filtering water supplies, as well as hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. Do the very limited benefits of energy-from-wood outweigh those losses? Plus, older forests may be better at storing carbon than younger ones, and young to middle-aged forests can best help with carbon storage if they are used for long-lived forest products like buildings and furniture - not burning them to charge your iPod.

So, burning wood to generate electricity – depending on how you look at it – may be carbon neutral. But that is not nearly enough to allow it to be more than a niche, small-scale energy source. I’m of the view, all things considered, that forests are not fuel.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Whistling in the dark on energy and emissions

This hopeful-sounding headline from the U.S. Energy Information Administration is deceiving – for what it says, and for what it does not say.

One might first cynically ask: we have energy policies in the U.S.?  True, we have aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, a continuing frothy debate over the Keystone pipeline and Canadian tar sands, and “all of the above” energy strategy, shale gas, and shale oil. We have anemic levels of investment in renewable energy, and virtually no progress on essential technologies like carbon capture and storage. And we have some significant but in the aggregate small measures that inch us toward efficiency and renewable energy when we should be leaping.  But it is difficult for me to accept that this dog’s breakfast comprises a true policy other than one of neglect when it comes to the health of our climate, our economy, and our people.

In its 2013 energy outlook, EIA projects that per capita American energy use will fall back to 1963 levels by 2040, due to increasing energy efficiency in appliances and vehicles that will be required by current federal laws.  EIA also says that the U.S. will get 78% of its energy from fossil fuels in 2040, down – almost imperceptibly - from 82% in 2011.

The recent illusory and temporary reprieve in carbon pollution provide by low-priced shale gas has been reversed, and EIA projects a flatlined level of carbon emissions:

Source: EIA

This results from EIA's assumption of a “no sunset” case - the continuation of the production tax credit for wind, biomass, geothermal, and other renewable resources, and the investment tax credit for solar generation technologies.  However, they are the subjects of relentless, perennial attacks by fossil fuel interests (in all their guises, including climate deniers) and their Congressional hires.  If these policies somehow manage to survive against the know-nothing crowd, they would still condemn the United States and the world to the most devastating impacts from climate change. 

We are just about to pass the 400 parts per million mark of atmospheric carbon – a level of CO2 not seen in the earth’s atmosphere for millions of years.  We are headed to disastrous levels of warming. Flatlining emissions will flatline the planet as we know it – and us.

We need far more than more of the same.  We need a national consensus on climate, aggressive investment in efficiency, renewables, and carbon reduction technologies, and energy and climate policies that meet the urgency of the moment and the magnitude of the existential threat we face.  

Monday, April 29, 2013

EPA sharply reduces estimate of methane emissions from natgas production

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a report released this month,  has reduced its estimate of methane emissions from natural gas production by about 20%.

EPA says that tighter pollution controls have allowed an average annual decrease of almost 42 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, or more than 850 million metric tons overall.

This apparent reduction comes despite the fact that natural gas production, led by hydraulic fracturing, has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990.  I say"apparent" because the data is not without critics

Clearly, more and better data - especially gathered from the field by rigorous, mandatory monitoring efforts - is needed. As is mandatory adoption of leak detection and control technologies.  Methane emissions from natgas production, transmission, and distribution must be driven as low as possible.

As I've written previously, minimizing methane emissions issue is critical to deriving climate benefits from natgas production - and it's essential to the industry's social licence to operate.