Bill McKibben gets the math wrong on fracking

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Gas is leaking from pipes beneath New York City and Bill McKibben has confidently informed us that this is simply more evidence that the climate benefits of shale gas are much worse than many claim. Unfortunately the only real message from the article is that Bill McKibben is rather selective about evidence when it comes to fracking and that his apparent willingness to “do the math” on climate change does not transfer over very well to the rather important question of where we get our energy from.

I’ll begin by tersely summarizing the report (which as McKibben notes was funded by an anti-fracking group). Essentially the gas pipes under New York city are old, and apparently leaking methane. This supposedly means that some of the claimed emissions reductions from shale gas are not happening. Leaking methane means the emissions are not being saved.

So, what do New York’s old and leaky pipes have to do with the claimed emissions reductions due to shale gas? Precisely zero. Here’s why.

The gas pipes under New York are principally used to supply domestic gas for heating. However the emissions reductions from shale gas are entirely down to fuel switching from coal to gas in power plants, and slightly from increased gas use in other industrial processes. The amount of gas used for domestic purposes has been unaffected (so far) by shale gas.

Here is the situation with power plants summarised:


Natural gas is growing quickly, while coal is doing the opposite. To put harder numbers on it, the percentage of US electricity coming from coal went from 49% in 2006 to 37.6% in 2012, while gas went from 20.1% to 30.3%. This has a very significant impact on the carbon intensity of the US electricity grid (methane leaks aside, gas plants emit half as much CO2 as coal plants).

Twitter   CarbonCounter_  Wow. Huge shift from coal to ...

However no such rises have occurred in the market for domestic gas. Here is the long term national trend for domestic gas:


Nationally the trend since around 2005 is essentially flat. Things have actually been pretty flat for a long time.

How about New York State:

chart (1)

Again, the trend is flat. Domestic gas use has not been impacted that much by the boom in shale gas, if at all. In other words the amount of gas flowing through, and leaking from, New York City’s pipes is no higher today than it was before the shale gas boom.

So, the only thing this is really evidence of is that New York should perhaps consider replacing a few of these pipes, and that the fracking debate continues to be a source of endless nonsense.


6 thoughts on “Bill McKibben gets the math wrong on fracking

    mem_somerville (@mem_somerville) said:
    April 3, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Oh, right, I see. You can’t just decide one day that your house will now use a gas dryer and gas oven if you aren’t piped for that. And they just don’t dig pipes on whims.

    I remember a big push to home gas conversions from the utilities at one point, but that was about moving from big basement oil tanks to gas burners instead.


    daveburton said:
    April 3, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Moreover, as long as the gas lines exist and are pressurized, it doesn’t matter how much gas the customers use, or how pricey it is, the leakage rate will be unaffected.


    Steve O said:
    April 4, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    Although I support Bill McKibben’s efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in general, I agree with Mr. Wilson that leaking gas pipes in NYC and the fracking debate are unrelated issues.


    Andre Parker said:
    April 4, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Domestic U.S. use of natural gas grew from 23.1 Tcf in 2007 to 25.5 Tcf in 2012, according to EIA data. That is not flat usage; in fact, that’s almost a 10% increase. Yes, of course, most of that increase is from expanding use of natural gas in power plants. Residential and commercial use, including in New York City and Boston, has indeed remained relatively flat. But the gathering lines, intrastates and interstate pipelines delivering the gas to power plants have some serious leakage issues of their own.


    Matt said:
    April 5, 2013 at 1:04 am

    Bill’s point was that the gas can’t really be a transition fuel, and that the leaks ought to be considered.
    To do due diligence, you ought to consider the consumption of electricity produced by natural gas as well. This has been increasing in NYC. (In fact, there is a big war there now about putting in new, larger gas lines to the city). If the gas leakage rates in the drilling and distribution process are high enough, it cancels out the GHG reduction benefit from the fuel switch. EIA’s data only accounts for known losses, around 1.4%,, which may be underestimating the leakage.


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