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The BBC has plumbed new depths with its recent reporting on
shale gas. Its reporter Richard Black wrote a story about the old Cornell University claim
that shale gas production emits more greenhouse-warming gases than
coal. I happen to know quite a bit about this study and I know that
it is based on very extreme and highly implausible assumptions
shared by nobody outside a narrow group of partisans. I also know
that it is very, very easy for a journalist to find this out and
then at least to mention that there are two sides to the story. Yet
nowhere in the entire piece does Black even mention that this study
is disputed. As reporting goes, that's truly disgraceful, and I for
one will never trust a story from Black again.
So here are a few things he should have told you about the other
side of the story, from Energy in Depth, a source that is about
as partisan as the BBC.
The author of the study, Robert Howarth, is an evolutionary
biologist with no expertise in energy and with a track record of
campaigning actively against shale gas. Nothing wrong with that,
but it should be mentioned.
The first version of the study had to be humiliatingly withdrawn
when Howarth realised he had assumed that no methane leaked from
The study depends on assuming that methane's global warming
potential is 105 times that of carbon dioxide, `far greater than
IPCC's recommendation of 72 over a 20-year period, and a
staggering 320 percent higher than
IPCC's 100-year benchmark of 25. (IPCC Fourth Assessment Report
[AR4], table 2.14,
Howarth has admitted: "Let me just as an aside say that, again,
the quality of the data behind that number [methane emissions
during well completion] are pretty lousy. You
know, they're these weird PowerPoint sort of
Howarth takes his figures for leaked gas from published reports
of `lost and unaccounted for gas'. But this is not necessarily
leaked gas. `The reality, as detailed in the very article they cite
in their study (but ignored), is in fact quite different. It's an
So, in other words, shale gas has greater global warming
potential than coal only if you rely on lousy data, misunderstood
accounting categories, quadrupled assumptions about methane's
relative greenhouse potential -- and then only in the short term,
when people like Black are always telling us it is the long term we
should worry about.
Truly, is Black not even slightly embarrassed that he has
allowed his reporting to be hijacked by a narrow agenda of a
particular environmental lobby, rather than doing some actual
reporting? I thought the BBC had a claim to be balanced.
There is a parallel here. What is happening to shale gas is
exactly what happened to GM crops in Europe in 1998. A vigorous and
swift campaign by the green movement to raise any doubts they could
(and any funds they could -- opposing things is how they fill their
gigantic budgets, remember), no matter how dodgy the evidence
(remember Arpad Puzstai), put the entire technology on
the back foot.
Meanwhile, reasonable people were left muttering: well, I
suppose we should be cautious and not jump into this till we have
looked at the evidence. Black quotes one to exactly this effect in
his shale gas article:
"I suspect the debate on this will be long,
and the answers will be different for each shale gas formation; but
it is important that we tackle this debate."
In the GM case the lies were half way around the world before
the truth had its boots on. The result: the destruction of an
entire research tradition, the loss of environmental benefits that
demonstrably flow from GM crops, the revival of the pesticide
industry, the enrichment of a lot of enviuronmentalists and a
competitive disadvantage for a major European industry. Now, 13
years later, I know I was wrong to stand on the sidelines of that
debate at first. Too late.
Of course there are issues that need top be raised about shale
gas's environmental impact. But they need to be raised fairly.
Disclosure: I have an indirect financial interest in the coal
industry, so the premature strangulation of the shale gas industry
at birth would be good for me. I therefore have the opposite of a
vested interest in what I have written here.