Is Natural Gas Really Worse Than Coal? A Case of Activist Science Versus Real Science?


The herd of independent minds

Cornell University environmental biologist Robert Howarth led a team of researchers that put together and published an article in Climatic Change back in April that claimed natural gas produced by means of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) is worse than burning coal when it comes to man-made warming of the atmosphere. The argument turns on the fact that a molecule of methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.

Howarth and his team made some highly contestable number jiggering with methane's over-all global warming potential (GWP) and estimates about how much methane escapes from wells and pipelines into the atmosphere. Climatologists generally consider the effect of methane over a 100 year period, but Howarth's team decided to use a 20-year period. This considerably boosts methane's near-term GWP from the more usual 25 times that of carbon dioxide to more than 105 times. In addition, Howarth uses very dodgy data with regard to just how much methane escapes into the atmosphere.

Now the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory has done a life cycle analysis of gas versus coal and comes to a very different conclusion with regard to their effects on climate change:

Average natural gas baseload power generation has a life cycle GWP 50 percent lower (emphasis added) than average coal baseload power generation on a 20-year time horizon.

So even accepting Howarth's controversial 20-year time horizon, natural gas is much better than coal. This is basically the conclusion that most analysts had reached for years now. Never mind, the damage is done. Funds will be wasted on unnecessary research and regulations.

I cannot prove it, but I am beginning to get scared that Howarth's paper is an example of a growing trend in politicized sciences. When the herd of independent minds that constitutes the environmental community decides something is "bad," some activist scientist (motivated by the best of intentions I am sure) will step into the breach to cobble together a paper in support that foregone conclusion. Peer review appears to be powerless before the pressure of this kind of groupthink.