Cornell vs. Cornell: Turns out shale gas emissions really are lower than coal

A Cornell University study came out last spring with what many thought was an unbelievable finding that lifecycle emissions from shale gas could be higher than those of coal.

A subsequent Cornell University study has shown that finding really was unbelievable.

This subsequent study, recently published by Professor Lawrence Cathles and his colleagues at Cornell, criticizes the methodology and findings of last year’s study by Cornell Professor Robert Howarth and his colleagues.

In the journal Climatic Change (where the first study by Howarth was published), Cathles lays out several fundamental errors that led Howarth to unreliable conclusions about the emissions from shale gas production:

“[Howarth et al.’s] analysis is seriously flawed in that they significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction, undervalue the contribution of “green technologies” to reducing those emissions to a level approaching that of conventional gas, base their comparison between gas and coal on heat rather than electricity generation (almost the sole use of coal), and assume a time interval over which to compute the relative climate impact of gas compared to coal that does not capture the contrast between the long residence time of CO2 and the short residence time of methane in the atmosphere.”

By “using more reasonable” data, Cathles and his colleagues confirm that “gas has less than half and perhaps a third the greenhouse impact as coal. Since gas also possesses other important emission advantages such as no particulates, SO2, NO2, or ash, it is clearly the ‘cleaner’ option in comparison to coal.”

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon came to a similar conclusion back in August in their study on the emissions from Marcellus Shale production. Their study found that preproduction emissions “are not substantial contributors to the life cycle estimates” – making Marcellus Shale gas essentially the same as conventional natural gas, which emits about 50 percent fewer emissions than coal when used for power generation.

Clearly, Howarth’s flawed findings about shale gas emissions were the anomaly. But you wouldn’t have known it from the media coverage. Howarth’s study received an avalanche of coverage, including articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Their stories fueled critics of hydraulic fracturing throughout the summer.

Meanwhile, the major news outlets that covered the Howarth study largely ignored Carnegie Mellon’s, which only garnered the attention of local outlets like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and West Virginia Gazette.

We weren’t the only ones who noticed this glaring disparity in how the media covered the two studies. Surveying U.S. media coverage on hydraulic fracturing, George Mason University professor Robert Lichter found that, by a ratio of 12 to 1, major media outlets reported on the negative Cornell study while ignoring Carnegie Mellon’s.

We’ve called out some of the deficiencies in coverage of shale gas issues by some media outlets before. Even the public editor of the New York Times said one of the Times’ stories about shale gas was “out on a limb” with questionable sourcing and little context.

Just last week, however, the Cathles research showing lower emissions for shale gas did receive some attention – but mainly because Howarth issued a response saying he stands by his findings.

Cathles isn’t the only one who has refuted Howarth’s findings. Check out this report from the experts at IHS CERA for analysis of the flaws in Howarth’s approach, plus more details about how natural gas wells are drilled. Take a look at the Carnegie Mellon study as well.

And by all means read the research by Professor Cathles at Cornell. His findings are the latest in the mounting evidence that Howarth’s “seriously flawed” study was the exception, not the rule.


2 Comments

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  1. James LeCuyer says:

    I assume that all concerned wish to see a sustainable and clean environment, but how much are you willing to do to achieve that? When you say that retrieval of shale gas has lower emission than coal, that’s a bit like saying a 9.0 earthquake is less powerful than a 9.5. Exxon has the money and influence to help make a livable world, but its positive efforts seem to be minimal compared to its negative efforts. Use of fossil fuels has brought us much closer to the edge of global destruction. The Polar Ice Caps are melting, and fossil fuels are a major cause. If the Greenland Ice Cap melts, seas could rise as much as six feet. Are you going to be able to say you did all you could do to stop such calamities from occuring? We live together on one planet. Our children and grandchildren need a breathable, sustainable peaceful and beautiful planet. We all beg you to help us survive.

    • James Spangler says:

      James LeCuyer, I read your posting and I have to wonder something, what cost do you think is reasonable for everyone to pay for a clean sustainable, peaceful and beautiful planet for all of humanity to live on?? I guess the first thing to do is first figure out what the definition of such a planet is and second to figure out how to achieve that goal.. Taking human nature into account on the one hand while studying human history would be most helpful here.

      First question, what do humans want?? Does everyone have an equal say in this or does a small group make the decisions for everybody?? If it is to be a small group that makes the decisions for everybody, what are the qualifications needed to be part of this group.. Are there going to be elections held to pick this “elite” group of individuals?? Is it going to be done by looking that some arbitrary set of standards?? Do the poor get an equal say along with the rich?? What about the few remaining “uncontacted tribes” living in the Brazilian rain forest, do they get a representative in this group as well??

      Second question, what is the definition of renewable/sustainable energy and how cost efficient does it have to be to replace fossil fuels??

      Third question, who pays for researching and then building the infrastructure for this as yet undiscovered cost efficient, renewable/sustainable energy source??

      I don’t have the answer, but I do know that solar cells, batteries and wind power have all been around longer than natural gas and crude oil derived fuels and as of yet none of them can compete on any scale with the energy value present in a barrel of crude… read more »

      …oil.. Besides that it is often overlooked that over 50 percent of each barrel of crude oil goes into making products that are used in everyday life that can not be produced from any other means regardless of price.. Everything from medicine to plastics, to food products, cosmetics, clothing, the list is long and surprising at the number of things humans depend on that come from that barrel of crude oil, do we sit done and decide which of these products humans are going to have to do without or do we do the best we can with what we have..

      In his first inaugural speech Ronald Reagan said; “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else”?

  2. James LeCuyer says:

    I assume that all concerned wish to see a sustainable and clean environment, but how much are you willing to do to achieve that? When you say that retrieval of shale gas has lower emission than coal, that’s a bit like saying a 9.0 earthquake is less powerful than a 9.5. Exxon has the money and influence to help make a livable world, but its positive efforts seem to be minimal compared to its negative efforts. Use of fossil fuels has brought us much closer to the edge of global destruction. The Polar Ice Caps are melting, and fossil fuels are a major cause. If the Greenland Ice Cap melts, seas could rise as much as six feet. Are you going to be able to say you did all you could do to stop such calamities from occuring? We live together on one planet. Our children and grandchildren need a breathable, sustainable peaceful and beautiful planet. We all beg you to help us survive.

    • James Spangler says:

      James LeCuyer, I read your posting and I have to wonder something, what cost do you think is reasonable for everyone to pay for a clean sustainable, peaceful and beautiful planet for all of humanity to live on?? I guess the first thing to do is first figure out what the definition of such a planet is and second to figure out how to achieve that goal.. Taking human nature into account on the one hand while studying human history would be most helpful here.

      First question, what do humans want?? Does everyone have an equal say in this or does a small group make the decisions for everybody?? If it is to be a small group that makes the decisions for everybody, what are the qualifications needed to be part of this group.. Are there going to be elections held to pick this “elite” group of individuals?? Is it going to be done by looking that some arbitrary set of standards?? Do the poor get an equal say along with the rich?? What about the few remaining “uncontacted tribes” living in the Brazilian rain forest, do they get a representative in this group as well??

      Second question, what is the definition of renewable/sustainable energy and how cost efficient does it have to be to replace fossil fuels??

      Third question, who pays for researching and then building the infrastructure for this as yet undiscovered cost efficient, renewable/sustainable energy source??

      I don’t have the answer, but I do know that solar cells, batteries and wind power have all been around longer than natural gas and crude oil derived fuels and as of yet none of them can compete on any scale with the energy value present in a barrel of crude… read more »

      …oil.. Besides that it is often overlooked that over 50 percent of each barrel of crude oil goes into making products that are used in everyday life that can not be produced from any other means regardless of price.. Everything from medicine to plastics, to food products, cosmetics, clothing, the list is long and surprising at the number of things humans depend on that come from that barrel of crude oil, do we sit done and decide which of these products humans are going to have to do without or do we do the best we can with what we have..

      In his first inaugural speech Ronald Reagan said; “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else”?