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Can Shale Gas Benefit the Climate?: A Response to Joe Romm's Cognitive Dissonance

Grant McDermott's picture
Norwegian School of Economics (NHH)
  • Member since 2018
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  • Oct 22, 2013

I used to be an avid reader of Joe Romm’s “Climate Progress” blog. However, my enthusiasm has waned over the years due to his stark intolerance for any opposing ideas, dogmatic stance on nuclear power and several other factors.

(On the plus side, his blog remains an excellent repository for climate news and he can be great fun when mocking the likes of Christopher Monckton and company. So I still like to stop by Climate Progress every now and then… even if I prefer to get my climate opinion directly from active researchers nowadays like Real ClimateTaminoJames AnnanSkeptical Science, etc).

Nonetheless, another difficulty I have with Romm is that he appears to suffer from acute cognitive dissonance at times. For example, the overriding theme of his blog is one of impending climate doom, yet he regularly proclaims that renewables are already at grid parity, getting cheaper by the second and ready for mass deployment. So, problem solved surely? (Frustratingly, this is a recurrent theme on many green blogs, where Cassandra complexes are hard to square with wildly overstated — or misleading — claims about current renewable energy performance.)

Such cognitive dissonance is again on display in one of Romm’s recent posts, entitled “Major Study Projects No Major Long-Term Benefit From Shale Gas Revolution“. The study in question is by Huntington et al, (2013) and contains projections from a broad suite of integrated climate models. In addition to GHG emissions, the researchers looked at the wider economic impacts of shale gas and their conclusions are rather more nuanced than Romm’s excitable headline would suggest. In short, the final projections depend on a complex set of model assumptions and variable interactions. This is evident from the following paragraph that Romm actually cites from the study (emphasis his):

…this trend towards reducing emissions becomes less pronounced as natural gas begins to displace nuclear and renewable energy that would have been used otherwise in new power plants under reference case conditions. Another contributor to the modest emissions impact is the somewhat higher economic growth that stimulates more emissions. Reinforcing this trend is the greater fuel and power consumption resulting from lower natural gas and electricity prices.

Does anyone else see the irony here? Romm is lauding a study which questions the climate credentials of shale gas… and yet that largely depends on whether cheap gas displaces nuclear power — a technology that he maligns at every opportunity.

More importantly, to say that shale gas confers no long-term climate benefits (in of itself) is extremely misleading. It all depends on whether it is complemented by a carbon price, as anyone interested in this debate (at least that I am aware of) readily acknowledges. You get a sense of this from the very figure that Joe Romm chooses to include in his blog post:

Comparison of low shale scenario (light blue), high shale scenario (dark blue), and a scenario depicting a reference case combined with a carbon price (green). This reference case is in between the low and high shale scenarios, while the carbon price starts at $25/tonne in 2013 and increases at 5% each year. Source: Huntington et al. (2013).

Comparison of low shale scenario (light blue), high shale scenario (dark blue), and a scenario depicting a reference case combined with a carbon price (green). This reference case is in between the low and high shale scenarios, while the carbon price starts at $25/tonne in 2013 and increases at 5% each year. Source: Huntington et al. (2013).

The dramatic reduction in emissions due to a carbon price is clearly evident. However, the above figure is still not really comparing apples with apples, since the carbon price is not adapted to the high shale scenario. (It is applied to a reference scenario that is somewhere in between the high and low shale cases.) Luckily, the data that would allow us to make the correct comparison is available here. I have therefore reconstructed the above graph, this time adding a new column that specifically combines the high shale scenario with a carbon price.

Based on Figure 13 of Huntington et al. (2013). The figure now includes a fourth column (purple) where a high shale scenario is combined with a carbon price.

Based on Figure 13 of Huntington et al. (2013). The figure now includes a fourth column (purple) where a high shale scenario is combined with a carbon price.

This updated graph makes perfectly clear that the shale revolution can be fully compatible with deep, long-term emission reductions, as long as it is complemented by a carbon price. To his credit, Romm does mention this briefly in the article (and has also commented on the issue previously). Yet, by continuing to disparage shale gas and pretend that its supporters ignore the need for a carbon price, he simply serves to further polarise the climate debate.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Adapting to the threat of climate change will require a broad suite of interventions. Nobody should claim that the proliferation of shale gas is a sufficient development for de-carbonising the global economy. However, together with a carbon price and other technological breakthroughs, it will likely form a very necessary component.

PS – It probably goes without saying that the economy also benefits from cheap and abundant shale. Huntington et al. state as much in their report (p. 7):

Higher shale resources reduce the costs of natural gas development and expand opportunities throughout the economy. Relative to its path in the low-shale case, [real GDP] is higher in all models that track the economy’s aggregate output. The cumulative aggregation of these GDP gains over all years is significant standing at $1.1 trillion (2010 dollars).

Showing this in graphical form is a little trickier, since some of the models actually take economic growth as an exogenous assumption, or don’t extend all the way until 2050. Nonetheless, here is a graph showing a selection of models that compare changes in real GDP up until 2035.
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Guy Dauncey's picture
Guy Dauncey on Oct 22, 2013

Thaks for the thoughtful analysis, but I can’t buy into this – not knowing that the fugitive emissions associated with shale gas fracking make it as bad as coal – and that’s from Howarth’s calculations and from ground-truthed, photographed measurements

It’s completely counter-intuitive to figure that adding a carbon price makes shale gas a means of reducing emissions. 

I take it you agree that a price on carbon would also include a price on methane? Maybe that’s the missing part of the analysis.



Grant McDermott's picture
Grant McDermott on Oct 22, 2013

Hi Guy, thanks very much for your comment.

RE Methane leakage: I’m afraid that you are repeating an outdated claim that is thoroughly at odds with the recent scientific literature. The most rigorous assessments show that fugitive methane leakage rates are at most 1% of gross gas production. (See especially a paper by Allen et al (2013), which received lots of press following its release in September. The EPA has arrived at broadly similar conclusions in its own greenhouse gas inventory reports.) in short, there is no way that natural gas comes close to the climate harms of coal at these leakage rates.

As an economist, I must also confess that I don’t see how adding a carbon price to shale is a “completely counter-intuitive” way of reducing emissions… In fact, it seems perfectly logical to me! Perhaps you could elaborate on what you mean?

Yes, I would support a carbon price that is inclusive of methane. Having said that, most analyses show that by far the biggest contribution to climate change over the next 100 years will come from CO2. That is where our focus should be predominantly be. (On a related note, this older post might be of interest.)



Guy Dauncey's picture
Guy Dauncey on Oct 22, 2013

Hi Grant,

The EDF report has had many critics; and it’s results are only 10% less than the EPA’s:

The choice of 100 years or 20 years to measure GWP for GHGs is arbitrary; 20 makes more sense because of the immediacy of the climate crisis. 

Here’s another critique, that includes Howarth’s response:

I’m 100% for carbon pricing; we have a $30 tonne carbon tax here in BC. It neds to be $150, but that’s life. But the tax works by shifting behaviour to reduce the tax, so it’s not going to cause advantage for two similar fossil fuels that pay a similar level of tax (due to methane emissions).




Guy Dauncey's picture
Guy Dauncey on Oct 23, 2013

Well, Willem, we have a carbon tax in BC, and it has built in low income credits to address its regressive nature. I get one myself!

It has successfully lasted our recent big election without any politician ditching it, so maybe you might reconsider your view?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 23, 2013

Guy, BC’s revenue-neutral carbon tax, which has cut carbon emissions by 18% in four years, is a model for the world. It’s proof that putting a price on carbon need not stifle economic interests to be effective – a remarkable accomplishment, which paves the way for even greater reductions.

Thanks for your resident’s point of view – I hope you will continue to enlighten others as the fossil fuel industry fights furiously any attempt to make selling its dirty fuel less profitable.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 23, 2013

Grant, it’s reassuring to read the comments of someone else who feels Joe Romm has jumped the shark. I became aware of Joe when he appeared in “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, and have followed his essays and blog ever since. His book, The Hype About Hydrogen, nailed the fallacies and insurmountable problems with creating a “hydrogen economy”. But his blind  devotion to renewables and equally devoted criticism of nuclear provoke more than a bit of head-scratching.

The question of whether shale gas can benefit the climate has already been answered – it can. My concern is there’s a limit to how much we can achieve by swapping out coal for gas. It’s already time to start thinking about how 4th-generation nuclear might be able to displace a firmly-entrenched global gas infrastructure, and give us a real shot at limiting global warming to +2°C.

Grant McDermott's picture
Grant McDermott on Oct 23, 2013

Hi Willem,

There is raft of research showing how and why a (flat) carbon tax can be made progressive. Revenue-neutrality, cap-and-divdend, tax-shifting schemes and so forth. Further, given that climate change is a global externality that will disproportionately impact the poor, I don’t put much stock in the regressivity argument. (I should add that most economists don’t see this as a stumbling block for carbon pricing.)

Of course, I agree that relative poverty and economic growth need to be taken into account when calculating an optimal price. However, these sort of factors are already assimilated — indeed, are fundamental inputs — into virtually every integrated assessment model that I am aware of.

I also agree that Germany is adopting a non-sensical approach towards decarbonisation and have said so on numerous occasions. On the other hand, reaching the designated climate goals will probably require experimentation with a lot of different approaches, so I see at least some kind of silver lining in their (expensive) project. Who knows, it might work? However, I’m glad that I’m not funding it with my tax money.

Grant McDermott's picture
Grant McDermott on Oct 23, 2013

Thanks Bob.

To be honest, I don’t see us implementing the policies that will put us on track for the 2°C any time soon. (Depressingly, I just happen to have seen this article.)

I certainly support nuclear as part of any realistic decarbonisation strategy. However, one of the reasons that I like gas is that it puts us on the right track over the short- to medium-term and buys some extra time for the build-up of political will that is necessary for implementing a coherent long-term climate policy.

PS – On a semi-related note, I have previously wondered whether methane emissions in the present might actually be “good” for climate goals… in the sense that they have a greater impact on short-run temperatures, which in turn could help to catalyse political action over the long-term. Of course, this was just a speculative idea for a blog post, but I do wonder whether there is deeper merit in it….

Grant McDermott's picture
Grant McDermott on Oct 23, 2013

PS – I already mentioned this in a comment below, but have a look at the Levi (2013) paper that I mention in this post. He shows that natural gas can only play a very limited role if we are to keep to a CO2 target of 450 ppmv. (That is, in the absence of complementary technology like CCS.) However, it can significantly help us reach “more modest, but still stringent” targets like 550 ppmv.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 23, 2013

Re: methane emissions – interesting, I’ve had similar thoughts about how an effective climate strategy would, over time, reinforce deniers’ beliefs that AGW is insignificant or an invention of academia – leading to the reversal of policies that got us there. Likely that’s already happening, to some extent.

Yet deliberately turning up the heat as a catalyst is a dangerous game which could blow through tipping points. Unfortunately I think we’re stuck with telling the truth and doing good science. Although Galileo might disagree, that approach usually delivers the best results.

Guy Dauncey's picture
Guy Dauncey on Oct 23, 2013

I’m firmly in Joe Romm’s camp. Nuclear makes no sense at all: it is dying an inexorable death from market sources, as Amory Lovins puts it.

For evidence that renewables can do it, see Mark Jacobson’s work, from Stanford.


As to not worrying about methane since it may ratchet up the sense of emergency: what are you smoking? I’ve spent 20 years on the climate file, and wirttten two award-winning books on climate solutions. This is one helluva civilization-destroying catastrophe that’s coming our way, if we don’t make the transition. We can, we must, and we will.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Oct 23, 2013

I can’t understand why you’d say it makes no sense when it is already being used and already contributing. Amory Lovins is not an unbiased person.

This is really more about personal biases/beliefs rather than reality of whether Nuclear Power can/does reduce GW gases.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 23, 2013

Guy, Lovins first claimed nuclear was dying in the 1970s – then the industry grew by 400%. On the payroll for Conoco-Phillips and Chevron, it’s no wonder he’s in the anti-nuclear camp: it has the potential to largely replace fossil fuels, while renewables depend on them for backup. Both he and Jacobson are prone to making wild claims which have been debunked many times (Jacobson ridiculously includes emissions from incinerated cities – the result of nuclear war – in his computation of nuclear energy’s carbon). These are ideologues who show no compunction about bending the truth to fit their pre-ordained beliefs.

The truth about nuclear: 60 reactors are under construction in 32 countries; the zero-carbon Sizewell B plant in Great Britain will double British electricity capacity. Meanwhile, Romm claims that if this and this and this and this happens, we’ll be able to run the world on windmills and solar panels. Real-world experience tells a different story – Germany’s misguided Energiewende is increasing the country’s carbon output while costing Germans tens of €billions.

Grant McDermott's picture
Grant McDermott on Oct 24, 2013

Guy, I fear that we may just be going back and forth on this, but…

There is simply no credible way that renewables can provide 100% of energy with the next few decades. Certainly not if we care at all about economic feasibility.

It’s hard to comment on the links that you sent, because there is no sense of underlying economic analysis. However, there are still a number of problems that immediately jump out from the presentation, e.g: “Natural gas causes more global warming… than coal over 150 years.” (slide 6)

This is so unequivocally wrong that it deserves a public retraction. 

PS – Again, the point about that “could methane help climate?” blog post is mostly about trying to understand the (all to important) political and psychological factors that will ultimately determine whether we manage to establish a coherent climate policy. Consider it simply food for thought.

Grant McDermott's picture
Grant McDermott on Oct 24, 2013

Thanks Willem. I’ve read MacKay; great book.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 24, 2013

Willem, I think the point is that a revenue-neutral tax would work in the countries where it could make the biggest difference. The Canadian/U.S. economies are similar enough that such a tax could work here (U.S.), and since Americans use 5x their share of energy the gains would likely be significant.

The bellyaching and doomsaying coming from some quarters is similar to what we heard when automakers were forced to include catalytic converters on cars – it will hurt the economy. They were wrong then, and the experience in BC undercuts their argument now.


David Newell's picture
David Newell on Oct 25, 2013

I think that the nature of “the solution” depens on the time-span considered.


Sure, let’s close all the coal powered plants immediately and put in natural gas ones.


What does that decsion “look like” in 100 years?


It looks like a catastrophe, without some magic new technology currently unknown popping up and saving our metaphorical bacon. 

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