Climate science: hydrofracturing and methane
Before continuing, it may be important to look more closely at the subject of climate change itself: what are the intrinsic drivers of the temperature increases we are now witnessing around the world? In contrast to the 2021 edition of my book Planet Zero Carbon, I am going to look at the many ways a less ‘mainstream’ understanding of the different factors involved may be useful. I don’t think it is worth denouncing mainstream science as engaging in some kind of conspiracy, as this does not accept the nuance and subtlety that is required when understanding how academic research communities or those operating within the constraints of a privately funded organisation work.
Having said this, there exists a very divergent view of what is causing recent warming spikes if we veer away from the conventional narrative.
As the graph below graphically portrays, the very basis of climate warming itself is far from the representation offered by mainstream climate scientists and institutions today.
This graph, which shows the number of operating rigs in the four primary US oil basins (Permian, Marcellus etc) plus drilling permits, paints a very different picture of what is causing the spiking temperatures being experienced globally in recent years.
In this chapter, first I will explain what brought me to focus on hydrofracturing as the primary cause of recent warming, from it’s origins in 2008, and why I am so sure that shale oil and gas are at the very root of the climate change and therefore energy transition dilemma. Later I will show why it is so important to accept that fugitive methane is the dominant driver of recent temperature trends, and how this fact can be written into scenario models in order to diversify the US energy mix, as well as some specific barriers that are being put in the way of climate-aware policy implementation.
So the next part of the equation, now that we are sure that we know that hydrofracturing really is a fundamental driver of the heating trend, is to determine how it may be possible to replace this energy source or at least significantly reduce emissions from extracted natural gas.
As I explain elsewhere, the need for fossil fuels will still exist beyond 2050, because it will be extremely challenging if not impossible to increase the rate of renewable capacity additions required. I put the figure at somewhere in the region of 30% of final energy demand, and if Middle East, Texas and some other national oil company plans are realised, then my guess is likely to be proven correct.
However, this is also the point in time when I may find myself parting ways with the more purist energy and climate commentators, and this is unfortunate. I believe it is better to accept a sub-optimal outcome than to refuse that such an outcome is likely to eventuate.
So I am stating that I believe fracking could continue; not necessarily all the way past 2050 or even 2040; but if the Middle East (recently in partnership with France’s TotalEnergies) is planning on developing massive gas fields for conversion to hydrogen, it seems unlikely that shale producers see a very different picture for themselves.
The point I am making is that the emissions intensity of the extracted fossil energy type is the most important factor. And by looking at the data in detail, we can see that it is not necessarily gas that is the most emissions intensive, but shale oil.
In this way, a primary focus for the US today should be the replacement or phasing out of oil. Thankfully, this is not as difficult as it sounds, as hydrogen is already very close to price parity with diesel, and as the price reduces as expected this decade, the case for hydrogen should be self-evident. Because oil is a more expensive commodity than gas, and requires more processing in refineries, replacing oil makes a lot of sense — for the climate, and for those investors who are growing wary of the various risks involved.
So this is my first recommendation (!): replacing oil with hydrogen, mostly from renewables. And renewable hydrogen at below the cost of diesel will certainly happen (it is already cheaper in some US locations), in addition to the CO2 and CCS infrastructure being built out already, with strong federal support.
The second component is replacing the cheap natural gas that is produced, high percentages of which escape during the extraction process. What is now being suggested, from Professor Arvind Ravikumar at University of Austin, Texas and IPCC WGIII author Chris Bataille is that this gas extraction could be much less emissions intensive if the objective was not to reach oil. The process may be far less invasive, and may offer the much lauded ‘bridge’ between fossil fuels and renewables, for when the cost of solar, wind and electrolysis for example means that hydrogen can be produced for less than about $0.50/kg.
What environmentalists are going to say is that no time should be spent on this stop-gap answer, and instead all efforts should be directed at electrification — thus bypassing the possibility of encountering scenarios where further emissions may occur. However, I think the possibility of replacing domestic US energy needs plus exports with renewable hydrogen within the window of time available to achieve net zero is slim to none. Instead, accepting that the US will continue to extract fossil methane deposits, the focus should shift to damage limitation: we know that shale oil is potentially a far greater driver of climate change than gas, and can be replaced with hydrogen today.
The remaining component — shale gas — should be possible to extract without the volume of methane slippage that has been experienced previously. Ensuring this is the case, this gas can be converted to hydrogen at low cost, at greater than 95% efficiency — almost none of the resulting CO2 escapes, using new, low cost techniques.
Some further barriers exist, such as the institutional and financial bias towards oil that exists in the US, mainly because of the US dollar’s role as the reserve currency. This means in effect that when oil is traded globally, it is traded in dollars — if oil was abandoned then an important revenue for US financiers may be jeopardised. However, this is likely to happen anyway, as Europe is setting itself up to ensure hydrogen is traded in Euros. So this is a moot point — and in combination with the cost of climate impacts, should not be as important as some commentators are inclined to believe.