In establishing natural gas and fracking as the clean alternative to coal and the “bridge” to a low-carbon future, the natural gas industry has relied on PR to smooth its way. While the most visible anti-fracking campaigns remain regional and local, tied to the politics of exploding water and poisoned wells, gas companies and lobbyists are moving to globalize the debate. Their message: rational environmentalists should embrace gas, because gas will save us from climate change.
That message was stimulated by 99 words in a 492-word press release from the International Energy Agency (IEA). Though it was contradicted in the same week by an IEA spokesperson and a much longer IEA report, the message spread — from the conservative press and gas lobbyists to the halls of government. Now, it’s simply taken as fact.
Carbon and methane
In reality, the environmental benefits of gas are still uncertain.
Without counting the emissions released during extraction, gas power stations produce half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides compared to a coal-fired plant, according to America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But there is a caveat. Natural gas is composed of mainly methane, which has 21 times greater warming impact than carbon dioxide on climate change over a 100-year period, the EPA says. Gas leaks, or “fugitive emissions,” are therefore a serious issue.
A 2011 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that if 6% of gas was leaked during its production cycle, a gas plant would contribute more to global warming than a coal plant over a 25-year period. The EPA currently believes the rate of methane leakage to be 3%. Yet the EPA data is an estimate based on industry data and is difficult to verify, writes energy and environment reporter Brad Plumer at The Washington Post.
The EPA’s internal watchdog, Arthur Elkins Jr, has recently suggested that its air pollution estimates from oil and gas drilling are of “questionable quality.”
“With limited data, human health risks are uncertain, states may design incorrect or ineffective emission control strategies, and EPA’s decisions about regulating industry may be misinformed,” Inspector General Elkins said in a statement in February.
The industry thinks the EPA methane estimate is too high; activists think it is too low. Dr Anthony Ingraffea, a hydraulic fracturing expert at Cornell University – a center for research into fugitive emissions – believes that the greenhouse gas footprint for both conventional and unconventional gas production has never been properly assessed, according to a report by DeSmogBlog.
Globally, methane levels have risen 160 per cent since the pre-industrial era, writes Marianne Lavelle, energy editor at National Geographic. While levels plateaued from 1999 to 2006, they have been steadily rising since then. “Many observers believe it’s no coincidence that the number of wells punched into deep shales has been soaring too,” Lavelle writes.
In this environment of scientific uncertainty, the gas industry has tried to diminish the caveats. In positioning gas as a boon for the climate, the industry claims credit for reducing carbon emissions while downplaying the danger of methane emissions.
The recalibration of gas PR began in 2010, when gas was riding a boom. In the preceding decade, the share of gas had grown from 18% to 30% of America’s energy mix, while that of coal decreased from 50% to 37%, according to America’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). A glut of cheap gas was coming largely from previously inaccessible or “unconventional” gas deposits, opened up by newly developed horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) technologies. By 2010, more than 20,000 “fracked” wells had been drilled, as calculated by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study, and fracking had spread from Texas through Louisiana, to New England, the Mid-West and the Mountain States. As a percentage of gas production in America, fracked shale gas rose from less than 1% to more than 20% in those ten years, according to a Chatham House report. But the new geographic domain of gas, mapped as a result of this new extracting method, and its unconventional practices, were creating disquiet.
In January 2010, Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It would go on to be nominated for an Oscar, and change the discourse on fracking. Robert Koehler from Variety compared its influence to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is said to have set off the environmental movement in the United States. Gasland documented the experiences of struggling regional communities affected by slickwater fracking, a process that involves the addition of chemicals as “friction reducers,” allowing for faster and deeper extraction. The film’s iconic, youtube-able moment featured a man setting a match to the water running out of his kitchen faucet.
The film was accompanied by its own PR machinery. Promotional material for Gasland says that Fox toured 180 American cities and worked with 50 local, state and federal environment groups to “effect message saturation in the most affected and increasingly vulnerable communities”. Aided by the Sierra Group, the Natural Resource Defense Council and HYH20, Gasland’s $204,000 anti-fracking campaign claimed to have spawned “hundreds of local organizations”.
From New Jersey, New York, and Quebec to South Africa, France, Britain and Bulgaria, bans and moratoria on fracking were enacted. Some of those have been reversed, as in Britain; New York’s moratorium looks set to be reinstated, with a bill currently passing through the state legislature.
The greening of gas
In early 2011, as public sentiment soured and political interventions intensified, new messages started to emerge from the gas industry. In April, Fiona Harvey, environment journalist for the Guardian, reported that the gas industry was engaged in a massive lobbying push. Gas lobbyists were using a dubious report which claimed that it was €900bn cheaper to meet the EU’s 2050 carbon targets with gas than with renewables.
“The Guardian has established that the analysis is based on a previous report that came to the opposite conclusion – that renewables should play a much larger role. The report being pushed by the fossil fuel industry has been disowned by its original authors who referred to it as ‘biased’ in favour of gas,” Harvey wrote.
By May 2012, however, the gas industry had something more concrete to support its case. A brief press release from the International Energy Agency, 492 words long, reported a surprise drop in America’s carbon emissions. Carbon emissions had dropped 1.7% over the year, and 7.7% since 2006. This was “the largest reduction of all countries or regions.” The IEA listed a number of factors: an exceptionally warm winter in 2010-11, the economic downturn, high oil prices and efficiencies in the transport sector – as well as the ongoing shift from coal to gas. The press release did not provide a relative weighting of these factors, or a breakdown of its figures. But in its wording, the press release put the mild winter and efficiencies in transport on par with the shift from gas to coal.
Other sources confirm this drop in carbon emissions, and point to numerous reasons why it might be happening. A 2013 report prepared by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) suggests that total energy use fell 6.4% between 2007 and 2012, mostly through advances in energy efficiency, like the use of better heating and cooling systems in commercial buildings. The growth of renewables and gas and the decline of coal also played a major role, the BNEF report says. Between 2007 and 2012, renewable generation grew from 8.3% to 12.1% of total output, while gas generation grew from 22% to 31%. Greenpeace has argued that renewables are growing faster: in 2010-11, renewable generation rose by 93 terawatt hours compared to 33TWh for gas generation.
While the shift to gas has played some role in reducing carbon emissions, there is the caveat mentioned earlier to consider. As climate scientist Michael Mann told the New York Times: “we may be reducing our CO2 emissions, but it is possible that we’re actually increasing the greenhouse gas problem with methane emissions.”
But the IEA press release, too brief to present this caveat, and too brief to properly disentangle the causes of the drop in carbon emissions, became a talking point for the gas industry – ignoring everything else the IEAhad written on the issue.
Misrepresenting the IEA
The IEA has consistently held the position that the environmental benefits of gas, while real, are nonetheless modest.
In its “Golden Age of Gas” report, released in May 2011, the IEA noted that a proportional increase in the use of gas produced only “slightly lower” emissions than other scenarios. The 2011 report notes that a golden age of gas would stabilize the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases at 650ppm, resulting in average temperature rises of 3.5 degrees Celsius. As Harvey notes in the Guardian, such a rise could lead to runaway climate change.
“It follows that an increased share of natural gas in the global energy mix is not enough, on its own and with today’s technology, to avert serious climate change,” the IEA report says.
A year later, in May 2012, in the same week in which the IEA announced the surprise drop in American carbon emissions, the IEA released a follow-up study on natural gas. While the IEA’s press release only discussed carbon emissions, this new report looked extensively at methane as well.
“Different assumptions about the level and impact of methane emissions can have a profound effect on the perception of gas as a ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel,” the 2012 report says. If the most pessimistic assumptions are true, gas could be “a worse greenhouse-gas emitter than coal.” Acknowledging uncertainty, the report calls for more scientific work into the impact of methane and the measurement of methane emissions.
The 2012 report reiterated that “reliance on natural gas alone” would not prevent a rise of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Nonetheless, the idea that the IEA had given a green light to gas rippled outward into the mainstream media and political orthodoxy, guided by the press release and not the longer reports.
The Financial Times was the first to run the story on May 23, before the second IEA report was released. The newspaper noted that other factors like improved fuel efficiency were part of the mix, unlike later iterations of the story. Yet the newspaper’s headline (“Shale Gas Boom Helps Slash US Emissions”) made fracking the hero. The newspaper’s angle appeared to be supported by a positive quote from the IEA’s Chief Economist, Fatih Birol: “This is a success story based on a combination of policy and technology – policy driving greater efficiency and technology making shale gas production viable.” The International Business Times also quoted Birol saying that shale gas “could definitely help in reducing CO2 emissions.”
Less than a week after the Financial Times story, when the second IEA report was released, Birol talked to theGuardian and distanced himself from the take of the Financial Times. “Gas cannot solve climate change – we need renewable energy,” Birol said. The economist qualified the halcyon rhetoric of the IEA report’s title: “A golden age for gas is not necessarily a golden age for the climate.”
A growing meme
But the story had already stuck. Energy in Depth, described as the “unconventional gas industry’s most vocal front group” by DeSmogBlog, released a statement citing the IEA on July 5: “U.S. Takes the Gold in CO2 Reductions, Thanks to Shale.” Energy in Depth referred to the press release as a “report”.
Ken Cohen, Vice President of Public and Government Affairs for Exxon Mobil, namechecked the IEA and Birol on his blog: “Dr. Birol and the IEA leave no doubt that the ‘technology making shale gas production viable’ is one of the most important reasons for the United States taking the global lead in curbing emissions.” Cohen claimed that the IEA’s “findings” were “just the latest to counter claims that lifecycle emissions from shale gas production and use could be higher than those from coal.” Cohen’s blog post was reprinted by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a lobby group.
In January 2013, the IEA story featured in Chesapeake Energy’s Corporate Responsibility Report. Chesapeake holds the largest acreage of gas leases in America, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The story gained legitimacy through the editorial and environmental pages of mainstream conservative and free-market publications, from the Financial Times to The Economist (“The International Energy Agency has just released some data that green-minded fans of shale gas should appreciate”), to the Wall Street Journal,Forbes, Reason, the British Telegraph and Murdoch’s The Australian (“the growth of shale gas exploration, capture and usage in the US … exemplifies why the profitable application of technology is the most viable means of achieving significant reductions in carbon pollution”).
By September and October, the narrative that shale was a rational, market-driven solution to climate change was further enhanced by Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, writing multiple pieces for The Times,The Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal; and by Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. “Fracking has succeeded where Kyoto and carbon taxes have failed,” Lomborg wrote atProject Syndicate. “By contrast, subsidizing current, ineffective solar power or ethanol mostly wastes money while benefiting special interests.” Contra the IEA, gas was now being portrayed as more effective for reducing carbon emissions than renewable energy.
Even Avaaz, a social justice campaigning organization, took shale’s beneficial impact on climate change as fact. “Are the climate benefits of using shale gas worth the environmental and public health risks?” Avaaz asked, citing the IEA’s press release. Avaaz perpetuated an increasingly prominent dichotomy: between the merely local detriments of fracking and its more substantial global benefits. Perhaps, this new narrative began to suggest, exploding water isn’t so important in the scheme of things.
Madness and hysteria
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic adopted the message. The most significant was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, writing in The Telegraph. As the British coalition government was debating whether to lift a moratorium on fracking at a gas deposit beneath Lancashire, Johnson argued that fracking was simply common sense. The IEA meme underlay his assumptions. “As a result of the use of gas, the Americans have cut their CO2 emissions to levels not seen since the Nineties, in spite of a growing population,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson argued that fracking was rational, and its opponents were “mad.” While fracking offered a solution to big national and international problems – fuel poverty, jobs, climate change – its opponents were stuck in a small, localist mindset. “Dig out this shale gas, they warn, and our water will be poisoned and our children will be stunted and our cattle will be victims of terrible intestinal explosions,” Johnson wrote.
This framing of the debate – rational vs irrational, global vs local – is becoming increasingly common as a rhetorical counter to post-Gasland activism. The Wall Street Journal and Forbes have written of New York’s fracking “phobia” and “hysteria”; the Telegraph has dismissed anti-fracking “Luddites”. Kevin Begos, energy writer for the Associated Press, argues that anti-fracking activism has become celebritized: “the facts can get drowned out by the glitz.” “NIMBY” activism should also consider the bigger picture: “the boom has created jobs, reduced imports of oil and gas, and lowered energy bills,” as well as “reducing air pollution.” Begos, who adopted the IEA meme in August, has written several stories for AP noting the benefits (and some of the detriments) of the fracking boom.
It is not just Boris Johnson who has incorporated the IEA meme into his thinking. So too has Dieter Helm, a member of the Economics Advisory Group to the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and a special advisor to the European Commissioner for Energy. In an otherwise nuanced account of the British energy market in Prospect Magazine, Helm noted that America has “amongst the fastest falling carbon emissions among the major economies.” The American experience demonstrates that “switching from coal to gas is in the short term significantly reduces emissions.”
As the British government, with the aid of Helm, prepares to release a more detailed policy on fracking, the “PR fight” is coming to London, writes journalist Robin Webster at The Carbon Brief. On one side, the local protest group Frack Off has organized protests and blockades, as well as screenings of Gasland around the UK. On the other side, the pro-shale gas blog No Hot Air has been selling the environmental benefits of fracking, quoting the IEA press release as one of its pieces of evidence. “Battle lines are being drawn,” Webster says.