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Shale Gas: Game Changer or Game Over?

By Keith Kloor

Close watchers of the climate and energy debate are experiencing a bad case of whiplash (again). 

Here's the quick and dirty (pun intended) backstory of the latest instance. In recent years, many in the climate concerned community — not to mention many energy companies — have been touting natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to a 21st century clean energy economy. But with all the necessary qualifications, such as better industry practices, tougher regulations, etc.

Stormier skies for shale gas? Credit: Ruhrfisch/Wikipedia Commons.

That bridge, however, has a few notable weaknesses, which ProPublica and more recently, The New York Times have highlighted. But again, these defects have largely been identified as local air and water pollution concerns, which, the thinking goes in climate circles, can be ameliorated with more stringent oversight. So the "bridge"  has remained intact.

Last week, the bridge became even sturdier when the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) put out an early overview of its annual "energy outlook," vastly upping estimated worldwide "recoverable" reserves of shale gas. That prompted Andrew Revkin of NYT's DotEarth blog to wonder aloud in a query to some energy experts:

I’ve seen some fresh analysis saying this new shale report completely ices the case that gas is now (more than was already clear) a fundamental game changer.

Revkin often frames the climate change issue more as a monumental energy problem, since there is no solving the climate problem without first addressing how to meet the world's growing energy needs. Operating within this framework, Revkin asked in the same post: 

If a substantial push to extract gas responsibly is coupled with an additional push on standards, boosted RD&D and education efforts, is the “energy quest” under way?

Maybe, but that natural gas bridge might not be as sturdy as previously thought, according to a Cornell University study in the upcoming May issue of Climatic Change Letters. Cornell ecologist Robert Howarth, a lead author of the study, says in a university release that methane ( a potent global warming gas) leakage from a controversial drilling method (known as fracking) offsets the lesser carbon emissions that makes makes natural gas more attractive in comparison other fossil fuels:

The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil. We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.

You feeling the whiplash? As Tom Zeller writes in today's NYT,

The findings, which will be published this week, are certain to stir debate. For much of the last decade, the natural gas industry has carefully cultivated a green reputation, often with the help of environmental groups that embrace the resource as a clean-burning “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future. 

If you're not feeling it yet, here's one final jolt (at least for the day), courtesy of a follow-up blog post by Zeller, questioning the methodology of the Cornell study.