Some Natural Gas Posts Worth Reading

Lynne Kiesling

Last week the EPA released a report on the extent of methane release during shale gas drilling; the results indicate that methane release is substantially smaller than previously thought. According to an article in Fuel Fix summarizing the report,

The scope of the EPA’s revision was vast. In a mid-April report on greenhouse emissions, the agency now says that tighter pollution controls instituted by the industry resulted in an average annual decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, or more than 850 million metric tons overall. That’s about a 20 percent reduction from previous estimates. The agency converts the methane emissions into their equivalent in carbon dioxide, following standard scientific practice.

The EPA revisions came even though natural gas production has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990. The industry has boomed in recent years, thanks to a stunning expansion of drilling in previously untapped areas because of the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which injects sand, water and chemicals to break apart rock and free the gas inside.

Experts on both sides of the debate say the leaks can be controlled by fixes such as better gaskets, maintenance and monitoring. Such fixes are also thought to be cost-effective, since the industry ends up with more product to sell.

This excerpt reflects my thinking on the leaks — since methane is the product they are extracting to sell and the cost of managing leaks is relatively low (but not zero), the firm has a self-disciplining incentive to reduce leaks (although not eliminate them, since the cost is not zero).

In a post on the EPA report, Walter Russell Mead remarks that

Companies are developing more sophisticated leak detection systems, and unlike many other environmental problems (like, say, power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions), there is a market incentive to prevent these leaks without any sort of green interventionist policy. Every unit of methane released into the atmosphere during drilling is lost profit.

But that’s not stopping misguided greens like Bill McKibben from bemoaning the news. McKibben took this opportunity to stress the need to transition away from fossil-fuels altogether, rather than appreciating the fact that we’re extracting one of the cleanest fossil-fuels more efficiently and with much less environmental impact than ever before. McKibben’s blinders are firmly in place; we’re unlikely to see a revision to a post of his earlier this month in which he suggested that methane leakage might make natural gas worse for the environment than coal.

I’ve never found McKibben’s arguments compelling, and now I realize why: his advocacy for dramatic, fast changes does not reflect how real people in real-world, complex decisions make changes in their behavior. McKibben fails to think at the margin. He does not acknowledge that the long transition to cleaner fuels is already in process. Long transitions are typical in technological change; think about how long it took to transition from water power to steam power — 60 years! McKibben’s argument for sudden, dramatic change does not reflect economic thinking.