The False Promise of Natural Gas

Patrick Kanopoulos – Patrick is a first-year law student at McGill University. He holds two degrees in engineering from the University of Toronto and is an associate editor for the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy.

Shale Gas: What is it and why is it dangerous?

Despite rising demand in the natural gas market, the price of natural gas has continued to decline. This is a consequence of the precipitous increase of natural gas produced by non-conventional sources: tight shale formations are drilled horizontally and broken apart by a process called hydraulic fracturing. The process loosens up the rock formations which have trapped natural gas. Once drilling and fracturing is completed, and the water and chemicals have been recovered from the well-bore, the natural gas vents upwards through the borehole and is recovered at the surface. Non-conventional shale gas recovered in this manner represented a negligible portion of the shale gas market in the early 2000’s, and now represents 48% of natural gas produced in the U.S.

Growth of shale gas production in the US since 2000. Attribution: US Energy Administration, via Wikimedia commons.

Growth of shale gas production in the US since 2000. Attribution: US Energy Administration, via Wikimedia commons.

While the negative effects to local groundwater sources and the effects of increased seismicity have been well documented and disseminated in popular media, the full extent of the atmospheric effects of shale gas production are only now coming to light. The most recent scientific evidence on shale gas extraction indicates that methane emissions resulting from shale extraction could far outweigh the benefits of using natural gas over coal as an energy source. The exact quantity of methane that leaks from the well-bores has long been a source of controversy: scientists and engineers were unable to quantify the exact amount of methane that was leaking through, and around, well-casings which are designed to prevent the gas from escaping into the atmosphere. The EPA long suggested that quantities lost to the atmosphere were limited to approximately 2% of methane recovered for combined production (upstream) and transmission (downstream) losses. Recent research based on satellite data suggests that this fugitive methane from up-stream shale production could be as great as 10.1% – a far greater quantity than originally anticipated. While there is still some controversy surrounding the upper limit of these findings, many reports place the range of fugitive upstream methane emissions at approximately 4% to 9%, much higher than the EPA’s own estimates.

One might ask why the leaking of methane is significant? If all the methane were recovered, the combustion products used to produce heat or electricity would be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide anyway. The simple answer is that methane, while it remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Over a 20-year period, the global warming potential (GWP) – a term used for ability of the gas to trap heat in the atmosphere – of methane is over 72 times greater than for an equal quantity of carbon dioxide. Over a 100-year period, the GWP falls to approximately 25. Once a certain quantity of methane is leaked from a well-bore and into the atmosphere, the relative advantage of using natural gas as opposed to coal is quickly diminished. Estimates suggest this is decisively the case today. In fact, using shale gas as an energy source is likely worse for the short-term prospects of the climate than coal. Most studies put this break even point at about 3% of methane vented to the atmosphere relative to the total quantity of methane which makes it to the end user when the 20-year time horizon is considered.

The short-term window of methane’s existence in the atmosphere is important: many of the climate’s tipping points will occur within this period. The irreversible break-up of the west-Antarctic and Greenlandic ice sheets are predicted to begin this century. On top of this, a warming atmosphere risks losing arctic permafrost (which will release even greater amounts of methane into the atmosphere), and precipitating a positive feedback cycle. Once these processes begin, the ensuing sea-level rise will be impossible to stop.

Flaring of natural gas, North Dakota. Attributions: Tim Evanson.

Flaring of natural gas, North Dakota. Attributions: Tim Evanson.

Why is methane an indispensable energy source for Canadians?

Many provinces across Canada have adopted natural gas as an energy source as part of a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This strategy focusses on using natural gas as a “transitional energy source” until natural gas generation can be replaced by renewable sources of energy. The strategy involves phasing out older coal generating power plants which produce approximately twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas electricity generation. As you might expect, these policies did and do not consider the emerging evidence that natural gas upstream natural gas emissions are not as clean as they seem.

Significantly, natural gas generated electricity has the capacity to compensate for the intermittency issues that plague solar and wind-generation energy sources. Natural gas generation stands as a safeguard for the variability of renewables, and the peak demand loads characteristic of most energy generation networks. It is not enough to simply replace natural gas with renewable generation. Rather, any feasible alternative must implement energy storage solutions which offset the intermittency issues of renewables and can respond to peak demand loads. No universal and widely-deployed solutions of this nature exist, and much more research is required in this area.

What are the legal and policy implications of these findings in Canada?

First, and most obvious, the urgency of a natural gas phase-out must be re-evaluated considering these major findings. Canadian provinces which rely on natural gas as an energy source need to invest in the deployment of renewable energy sources, and the research and implementation of energy storage at user and network-wide scales. Some of the demand for heating can be offset by heat pumps and geothermal systems, financed through aggressive government subsidies and financing programs. Switching back to coal, or ensuring that only conventional sources of natural gas are being exploited are not solutions. The long-term effects of coal generation are unacceptable by any standard, and ensuring that natural gas is derived from a conventional source will only reallocate the demand for non-conventional natural gas elsewhere.

Second, and less obvious, are the implications on cap-and-trade and carbon capture programs. The emerging evidence regarding fugitive methane has given scientists an idea of the quantity of methane being emitted to the atmosphere in the aggregate, but it gives no indication of the quantities leaked by individual wells or operators. Any emitter falling within a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system would find themselves unable to correctly quantify, and take measurable efforts against leaking wells. Further to this point, capturing carbon emitted by natural gas generation may be effective in reducing the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, but these technologies will not address the more critical issue of containing methane where it is leaking in the greatest quantities: at the well. The point here is that leaking methane from non-conventional gas production is not easily resolved by either the best technological or economic means available at present.

In the short term, more research is required to establish exactly how much methane is emitted from natural gas extraction from shale. Until this is firmly established, Canadian provinces and territories considering shale gas development should impose moratoria until there is firm scientific consensus on the fugitive methane emissions and means of containing them. Quantification of fugitive emissions is also essential for bringing existing shale operations into carbon tax and trading regimes.

In the medium-to-long term, provincial governments should reconsider the central role of natural gas in their energy strategy, and should invest aggressively in the testing and implementation of energy storage technologies to phase out natural gas as quickly as possible. Considering Canada’s agreement to curb its emissions following the COP21 Paris Summit in 2015, the Canadian government, along with all provinces, must re-examine their role as both producers and consumers of natural gas – and take serious and concrete steps towards better energy alternatives.

Interested in learning more about policies revolving around transitioning towards low-carbon economies? We suggest these selected articles from our past issues: 



These articles are referenced as suggested reading. It should not be taken to imply their authors share the views expressed above. 

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