Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fracking Myths & Climate Capitalism

Worried about high oil prices and exploding nuclear plants? Carry on shoppers, because we've found gold right under our feet - a bonanza of natural gas. Yes, fracking will fill your tank, heat your house, and light up the streets for another 100 years. At least that's what we've been told.

A new report out from the Post Carbon Institute pokes a sharp pin in the natural gas bubble. We'll hear from energy analyst David Hughes.

And in the second part of the program - a new book "Climate Capitalism" might make you mad, or make you think. It's a new recording, for a new book by Hunter Lovins and Professor Boyd Cohen. Scroll way down for that one, but it's worth the trip.


But first a return guest to Radio Ecoshock, Richard Heinberg. He woke me up to Peak Oil with his 2003 book "The Party's Over" and helped found a community of alternative thought in 2005 with the book "Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World". We interviewed Richard on the future of coal in the book "Blackout."

Now Richard Heinberg writes a hot introduction to the alleged great age of gas, available online from the Post Carbon Institute.

We catch up with Richard Heinberg in New York, after one of his many public talks.

In fact, Richard was invited by students of Worcester Polytechnic in Massachusetts. They objected to the the grad speaker invited by WP, namely Rex Tillerson the CEO of ExxonMobil - the company funding so much climate change denial. The big oil company working to wreck their climate future.

A group of students asked Richard Heinberg to speak, and Worcester Polytechnic, which I hear receives some ExxonMobil funding, reluctantly agreed to give their stamp of approval to the alternative graduation event as well. I ask Richard what he told the students.

But the main purpose of our chat was to look at the myths and realities of natural gas fracking. It has been touted as the miracle cure for almost everything, including powering the car fleet, and replacing coal as a more climate friendly fuel.

Heinberg points to a new study showing the total life cycle emissions of natural gas is as great as coal. The is partly because of all the energy used in ever-moving drilling platforms, but mainly due to "fugitive" methane emissions coming out of the drilling operations and pipe systems. Methane is many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

That report came from Robert Howarth at Cornell University, and published in published in the May issue of Climatic Change Letters (105:5). An April 11, 2011 article at the site, titled "Natural Gas fracking could be 'dirtier'
than coal, Cornell professors find" appears to have been removed from the site. However I downloaded the Google cache version.

Here it is:

April 11, 2011


By Stacey Shackford

Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal, according to a Cornell study published in the May issue of Climatic Change Letters (105:5).

While natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning fuel that produces less carbon dioxide than coal, ecologist Robert Howarth warns that we should be more concerned about methane leaking into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2), Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air
during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well -- up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.

"The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil," Howarth said. "We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible.

We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas."

Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, Tony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, and Renee Santoro, a research technician in ecology and evolutionary biology, analyzed data from published sources, industry reports and even Powerpoint presentations from the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA).

They compared estimated emissions for shale gas, conventional gas, coal (surface-mined and deep-mined) and diesel oil, taking into account direct emissions of CO2 during combustion, indirect emissions of CO2 necessary to develop and use the energy source and methane emissions, which were converted to equivalent value of CO2 for
global warming potential.

The study is the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from shale gas, and one of the few exploring the greenhouse gas footprints of conventional gas drilling. Most studies have used EPA emission estimates from 1996, which were updated in November 2010 when it was determined that greenhouse gas emissions of various fuels are higher than previously believed.

"We are highlighting unconventional gas because it is a contemporary problem for us in upstate New York, and because there is a big difference between developing gas from an unconventional well and a conventional well, for the mere reason that unconventional wells are bigger," Ingraffea said.

He noted that the hydraulic fracturing process lends itself to more leakage because it takes more time to drill the well, requires more venting and produces more flowback waste, he said.

"A lot of the data we used are really low quality, but I'm confident they are the best available," Howarth said. "We want to go out into the Marcellus Shale and do micrometeorological fluxes of methane at the time of venting and get a real number on this, which has never been done. We're optimistic we can get funding and do that over the next year."

"We've tried to be conservative all along; we're not trying to be hyperbolic in our statements," Ingraffea said.

"We do not intend for you to accept what we've reported on today as the definitive scientific study in regards to this question. It's clearly not," he added. "What we're hoping to do with this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before. In my opinion, corporate business plans superseded national energy strategy."

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


The Post Carbon Institute updated the original study using more recent reports.

Listen to our interview with Richard Heinberg, a leader in not just the Peak Oil movement, but in ways society must move forward in an age of ever-more expensive energy, and scarce resources of all kinds.


Following Richard Heinberg, a speech given by geoscientist David Hughes, the author of the new report "Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?".

Dave studied natural resources for the Geological Survey of Canada for 32 years. Now he's a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, just finishing a speaking tour of cities in Eastern Canada. His overview is packed with information that Presidents, Prime Ministers need to hear. You too.

The original speech went was 1 hour 9 minutes of dense information. In this week's program, we hear selections telling us the realities of natural gas supplies. Why the industry must drill more and more wells, always moving on, to find wells that produce less than earlier wells.

It's a gas decline in slow motion, leaving environmental destruction behind at many sites. The "fracking" method, of packing a secret mix of toxic chemicals deep underground, and then blowing them up into the rock, could poison entire aquifers or even reach back up into the drinking water supplies. Just like nuclear or deep water drilling, all that fracking risk is unseen, until something goes wrong.

It takes 4 newer gas fields to equal one of the older ones. Dave also talks about why Liquid Natural Gas or LNG is so climate unfriendly. Fracking realities. All that. Why estimates of gas supply were overblown by the industry, and then promoted by an uncritical government. The actual production is much different. Now we are coasting on an earlier wave of drilling, says Hughes, but the results cannot replace dwindling oil supplies.

David Hughes spoke to Transition Toronto on Feburary 3rd, 2011. We'll run his assessment of oil and coal supplies (peak is sooner than you think!) in upcoming Radio Ecoshock shows. Then we'll post the whole speech.

Find the new report on natural gas from the Post Carbon Institute here.

Between Richard Heinberg and David Hughes, we play this smart song from Studio 20 NSU with ProPublica:

"My Water's On Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song)"

See the You tube video here.


This week I'm covering a whole different look at the climate change puzzle. We've had the anarchists saying we are doomed (and I'm not saying they are wrong). We've had socialists calling for massive change in our whole hierarchy and social order.

But for now, the reality is: capitalism, - business determines most of our working lives and perhaps our climate future.

Yet led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and funded by Big Oil, a lot of business has spurned any attempts to control carbon emissions in North America.

What if the environmental approach can't save us? What could?

In this week's speech, recorded by Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock, we'll here a pitch from green entrepreneurs.

Forget about emissions and climate they say. Just focus on energy efficiency and making money from cutting carbon. That may work. It's a kind of radical business approach, and as you will hear, some major corporations are adopting clean energy solutions.

We may have to work with what is.

As co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Hunter Lovins envisioned green business. She called it "Natural Capitalism." In the year 2000, she was named a "Hero of the Planet" by Time magazine. Hunter Lovins has split from her also famous green tech developer, Amory Lovins. She is a force of her own, and it shows in this new book.

Now Hunter Lovins has teamed up with Professor Boyd Cohen to present a new concept called "Climate Capitalism". Is it possible for mega-corporations, and small business, to become carbon friendly?

In this speech recorded May 16th in Vancouver, Canada, Boyd Cohen says profits from energy savings, not concern for the climate, is what we should be talking about. Hold on to your sacred cows. Boyd Cohen says business can do it.

Cohen was introduced by the green Mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson.

Part way through the speech, Boyd argues against some radical environmentalists - that we must start adapting to a new climate, because it is already here. He gives examples from countries hit hard just in the last year, from Russia to Pakistan to the United States.

Even in adaptation, there are business opportunities. These might include everything from software for measurements, through new types of portable dikes to contain floods (like the Mississippi and the rivers of Manitoba). Like it or not, business is the means of accomplishing some of our adaptation to climate change, and Boyd and Hunter say we must get busy on adapting, before the next climate hit. And we have to do it WHILE continuing our fight to reduce emissions. Both. At once.

You probably won't like Boyd's opinion of Boliva and Evo Morales. While the country sounds heroic in its recognition of climate change, its policy is going nowhere, says Body Cohen. And he knows something. Cohen has spent a lot of time in South America, working to green a wide range of industries, including those in Bolivia. He is fluent in Spanish as well as technology.

Even the coal mines of Columbia can be made a little safer, and more climate friendly, by upgrading the capture of methane escaping from the mines.

You'll like the story of refitting a Brazilian brick-making plant, so it burns less of the Amazon rainforest wood to keep going. And the operation can get a little extra, by selling it's new carbon credits.

Do carbon markets suck? North Americans may think so, but the rest of the world are using these markets, they are growing, and some countries are at least trying to control emissions. In British Columbia, the government is obligated to buy carbon credits - from companies in that Canadian Province. The results are local and visible. I like that.

The Boyd Cohen presentation of "Climate Capitalism" was sponsored by Discovery Parks, Vancouver Greentech Exchange and CO2 IMPACT.

It was the launch of a new book "Climate Capitalism" from New Society publishers. Cohen, an American now teaching at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, co-authored the book with Hunter Lovins, the famous founder of The Rocky Mountain Institute.

Now in the real world of business large and small, these teaching entrepreneurs promote "Climate Capitalism" to cut emissions. It's a different approach to climate change. Find out more at

Will it catch on? According to this new book, it already has. Including ... are you ready? Walmart. Details inside the book, and our Radio Ecoshock broadcast.

This recording is by Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock.

Our main web site:


nika said...

I had to stop listening to this my favorite podcast during the Boyd Cohen segment. yikes and wow. so many things wrong going on with his POV - main take home message is his climate capitalism is wholly unsustainable even at first principles and simply describes the corporate mechanisms of catabolic collapse that is inevitable in our capitalistic culture.

culture of insanity said...

I have to agree to nika. This was the first time EVER I was feeling like I should press the "stop" button right now. And even my hope for some sane comment after that speech that puts it into perspective was disappointed. While I agree that big companies can obviously make big changes, there is not the slightest guarantee that they will do so because saving the environment or a living planet does just not always pay off in money - and certainly being nice to people does not. If they get another cheap energy source to replace carbon fuels they will take it in the blink of any eye no matter if it has other impacts on the health of the planet!

Alex Smith said...

Yeah, I knew this speech would upset some listeners.

Don't panic! I haven't sold out to Walmart!

I should have put some kind of disclaimer or my point of view at the end of this talk - but ran out of time. I'd already cut the speech to fit the half hour, and was close to my deadline to produce the show.

However, I think we need to take a little time to hear what business is saying to itself. Whether we agree or not, these are the real operators out there in the world.

Being blunt with myself, other than cutting my personal emissions, or encouraging listeners to do that - what have I done to reduce carbon emissions? Probably less than this speaker who I disagreed with. He's installing somewhat cleaner tech in developing and developed countries.

The climate situation is so dire. While the floods hit the center of North America, a northern town mostly burned down this week (Slave Lake, Alberta) - with giant fires that should not be burning this time of year! Our politicians do nothing, or make it easier to pollute the atmosphere.

That kind of desperation drove George Monbiot to accept nuclear power. It drives all of us to listen to a wide range of views on what to do.

Some people think collapse of this economic system is the only answer. Not just deep Green thinkers like Derrick Jensen, but a few scientists as well.

Others like Mike Ruppert and Dmitry Orlov say get ready for collapse. I've prepared as I can.

But most of us haven't really faced up to what this means. Perhaps we expect to watch it on TV. I haven't cancelled my (local) holidays this year. People are still shopping - aren't you?

I told Boyd Cohen this talk would upset some of my listeners. He said he and Hunter Lovins are trying to stir up a debate. Stirring the fire, to try and get things going on climate again.

Oh, well. It's called "Radio Ecoshock" for a reason. The content can be edgy. I try different voices, and often leave it to listeners to make their own judgements.

Sorry to those who didn't like this speech.

Radio Ecoshock

(Write me any time with your comments or suggestions for guests, use radio [at] )

nika said...

Alex: oh not to worry! i didnt hate it - i just felt like i had to chime in with my gut reaction as a peak oil aware person scared to death of climate change and a scientist who completely gets how wrong the nuclear "miracle" is. if his spirit is to stir things up - well he seems to be doing it tho i am guessing he will get good speakers fees from corporations who want to hear his POV. I didnt stop listening because I am leaving the podcast - i did because it was almost painful to listen to. IF this all were not so serious then I could blow it off! I eagerly await your podcasts and I know how much work it is, its all much appreciated. re: energy descent - we are in our skilling phase - we have developed our homestead, grow veggies, raise chickens, raise and milk dairy goats - create a food community around us - relocalize and help others do that too. We do not have the $$ to set up solar (and the northeast is trending so darn gloomy i wonder if it makes sense to do so) - we heat with wood in a high efficiency wood boiler with trees from our land - but we also use electricity to milk our animals and pump our water - we are not resilient to loss of electricity - yet. Like everyone - we have quite a long way to go on our energy descent BUT we are raising our kids this way and they understand peak oil, transition, and economic collapse - they also, unfortunately, are much more aware now about radioactive issues thanks to fukushima - we live not far from VT Yankee and Pilgrim and lord knows what else. (sighs) no chance to be a purist here!

Culture of Insanity: totally agree re their motivations!

mjosef said...

This talk was absurd - and giving over your segment to this type of cheerleading academic clown was weak.
It is not as if antic young money-grubber prof is some sort of lonely fool in the hills - this is the dominant viewpoint, expressed everywhere corporate boardrooms meet, with rabid rightist think-tankers like the Lovins crowd there to cheer them on, with Googlers and other crypto-libertarians there to gloss over the economic inequality that has killed as many people and species as the climate change they wish to exploit for their own greenwashing needs.
A better question: what has this self-infatuated jerk ever done to lessen the imbalances of economic inequality across the globe? He has actually done worse, to open new lines of neo-colonialism that will further enrich him.
Cohen and Lovins are just carnival barkers, aiding global corporations in their quests to find new sources of disproportional profit through network-marketing greenwashing.
His businesses will fail, but get a few ambitious grad-school types to get some outsized paychecks.

Who's next on the show - Al Gore?
Lee Scott? James Imhofe?