The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Frack for the Planet Fuzzy Math Can’t Hide Shale Boom’s Green Credentials

A new report claims that the American shale boom has increased net global emissions of greenhouse gases, but on closer inspection seems to rely on some “analytical chicanery” to reach that conclusion. The Breakthrough Institute reports:

[I]n a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, [CO2 Scorecard claims] that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.

If true, that would be a pretty serious blow against the shale boom’s green credentials. Shale gas displaces coal as a source of cheap baseload power, which this chart shows pretty handily, and it does so with just half the greenhouse gas emissions. There are other advantages that make natural gas—and the shale boom that’s supplying it here in the U.S.—a boon to Gaia, but its ability to help us wean ourselves off our dependence on dirty-burning coal is the reason why shale gas is fracking green. Which is why the claim made by CO2 Scorecard—that the shale gas boom has led to an increase in global emissions—is so serious. It’s a decidedly good thing, then, that that claim is looking awfully shaky under increased scrutiny from BI:

How does CO2 Scorecard reach this remarkable conclusion? First, by looking at year-over-year changes in generation shares between coal and gas and assuming that fuel-switching between coal and gas only occurs in years when coal generation goes down and gas generation goes up. Second, by assuming that gas has displaced zero-carbon nuclear and hydropower in recent years rather than coal. Third, by assuming that all of the increase in US coal exports has been due to coal that has been displaced by gas. And finally by assuming that all US coal exports are additive to total global coal consumption rather than displacing other sources of coal. Only by making all four of these assumptions, none of which can be supported empirically, can CO2 Scorecard make the extraordinary claim that the shift in the US power sector from coal to gas has resulted in increased emissions.

The piece then goes point by point and dismantles these assumptions, exposing some rather lax methodology (it’s a bit technical, but certainly worth taking the time to read in full if you find this subject interesting). Here’s the bottom line: natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal, and unlike renewables, it can supply power consistently (even on cloudy, windless days). We are well-served by unlocking new reserves of natural gas not just for the economic boost these plays provide, but also for their environmental benefits. One day, with the right technologies, we’ll be able to power society without relying on fossil fuels, but we’re not there yet. Until then, natural gas is one of our best options, and greens would do well to recognize the fracking boom for what it is: good news.

Published on August 21, 2014 5:13 pm
  • Andrew Allison

    Why would anything produced by an organization with the name “CO2 Scorecard” be taken seriously? Fuzzy logic and fuzzy math are what passes for science among AGW hysterics and climate scientists, but I repeat myself.. Meanwhile, from the BBC comes news (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-28870988) that the current hiatus in global warming is likely to continue for 13 more years. This brilliant conclusion has been part of the public record for a long time (http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadcrut4/diagnostics.html).

    As the chart makes clear, we’re in a long term rising trend consisting of fast rises and slow declines. the very long-term trend is 0.6 degrees per century as opposed the the 0.6 degrees per decade claimed by the IPCC — but hey, what’s an order of magnitude exaggeration between friends. Even more significantly, the slope of the staircase has been constant while atmospheric CO2 has increased roughly fourfold.

    • Corlyss

      On controversial issues, it’s the Battle of the Dueling Experts Who Wrap Themselves in the Mantle of Science.

      • George B

        In real science, credentials shouldn’t matter much. Either the measured data from experiments supports the theory or it doesn’t. Other scientists attempt to reproduce the experiment and the result. At a minimum, we have to acknowledge that the temperature increases predicted by AGW computer models haven’t occurred and the climate models don’t do a great job of predicting past climate either. The science is clearly not settled.

  • Corlyss

    “Fuzzy Math Can’t Hide Shale Boom’s Green Credentials”
    You consistently underestimate these True Believers’ capacity for self-delusion.

  • Duperray

    In their foggy virtual Universe (gathering all leftist propaganda) these modern out-of-date Alchemists – being sure they have discovered the Philospher’s Stone, AGW – are blind to reality and switch off both their intelligence and common sense when talking about their believes. In few months they will show that even Nostradamus predicted AGW and Amageddon !
    Most of population well fitted with both, can only distrust them more and smile…

  • Boritz

    They should change their name to something catchy like Carbon Die! Oxide.

  • George B

    I reject conflating carbon dioxide plant food from burning coal and
    natural gas and actual pollutants that come from burning coal and to a
    lesser extent natural gas. Actual pollution like particulates, sulfur
    dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen could be reduced either by switching
    from coal to natural gas or by replacing grandfathered high-pollution
    old coal power plants with new coal power plants with up-to-date
    pollution control. In a more sane world we would set appropriate limits
    for the actual pollution from power plants and let the market decide
    the right mix of coal, natural gas, and other energy sources. Right now
    the federal government has effectively outlawed the option of building
    new coal power plants. When natural gas prices increase, consumers are
    going to resent the government-forced lack of diversity in new power
    plants.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It isn’t fuzzy math, it is deliberate fraud, and if there was any justice these so called scientists would face justice and serve hard time in prison, with all the other criminals. RICO laws would serve mankind very well in this case.

  • bittman

    Americans need to focus on the EPA’s proposed regulations that are in effect the Cap and Trade bill that the Democrats could not pass in Congress when they were the majority in both houses of Congress. These regulations require a certain percentage of “green” energy to be used to produce electricity and mandates new equipment plus lays out new regulations regarding the TRANSMISSION of power. If these proposed regulations go into effect, all Americans can expect their energy prices to “necessarily skyrocket” just as Obama promised in 2008 when campaigning to be our President. The new equipment and new transmission requirements may well result in all of the colder, northern states have power outages routinely in the winter months.
    These regulations will be devastating to the poor and struggling middle-class as well as for elderly Americans. All of this is being done in the name of a very debatable science and when the 56,000+ American manufacturing firms that moved to Mexico after NAFTA was signed and are apparently competing with China and India to see who can pollute the most. How ironic!