28 thoughts on “CSG and Climate

  1. Quite a bit of computery garble in there JQ. Also, the carbon issue aside, what about CSG’s effect on agriculture? To my mind, this is the main point of contention.

  2. We must avoid falling for what might be called “the fallacy of substitution”. This fallacy suggests that the burning of CSG will substitute for the burning of coal. The main argument (that CSG or any other form of CH4 is more benign as a fossil fuel and so should be used) founders on the fact that it is used in addition to other fossils not as an alternative. The current facts are that everything prospected and found to be technically and commercially recoverable is burnt. Extraction of thermal coal is not slowing, nor are there plans to slow it, as extraction of CSG increases. The consistent plans of fossil-fuelled capitalism are to extract everything fossil and burn everything fossil.

    Given that the earth’s entire endowment of fossil fuel (known and reasonably inferred recoverable reserves namely coal, oil, natural gas, CSG etc.) is clearly sufficient to cause the highly probable outcome of global warming of up to 6 degrees Celsius and possibly as high as 10 degrees Celsius, ANY further development of fossil fuels of ANY kind is highly inadvisable. What is required is the cessation of all fossil fuel exploration and development right now. We need to phase out all existing fossil fuel production over the next 30 years and move to a 100% renewable, non-fossil fuel economy. If this is not done, global warming will wreck the biosphere’s capacity to sustain human civilization and maybe even the human species.

    Even to say, as some do, that “of all the fossil fuels Coal Seam Methane is the most benign. It is after all CH4…” is in itself a narrow and disingenuous argument. When we take into account all the other pollutants released in the process of producing CSG it begins to look far less benign. It is misleading to merely account for the burning of pure CH4. But that is not my main argument. My main argument is that CSG (if prospected and recovered) will be burnt in addition to other fossil fuels simply worsening our dilemma.

    Furthermore, I strongly suspect that the substitution argument is being pushed, in an orchestrated way, by the fossil fuel industry and climate change deniers. Indeed, the circumstantial evidence is already strong. The CM published an article saying that “Coal-seam gas comes up clean”. Search for it as I don’t want to run afoul of the link police. In this article, the source for the report making this claim is “The Global Warming Policy Foundation”. Search for them and go to their home page and then the “About us” tab.

    You will notice that the GWPF say the following;

    “We have developed a distinct set of principles that set us apart from most other stakeholders in the climate debates:

    – The GWPF does not have an official or shared view about the science of global warming – although we are of course aware that this issue is not yet settled.
    – On climate science, our members and supporters cover a broad range of different views, from the IPCC position through agnosticism to outright scepticism.
    – Our main focus is to analyse global warming policies and their economic and other implications. Our aim is to provide the most robust and reliable economic analysis and advice.
    – We regard observational evidence and understanding the present as more important and more reliable than computer modelling or predicting the distant future.”

    All this is carefully worded to give the appearance of even-handedness and open-mindedness but any perceptive student of corporate weasel-talk, denialist obfuscation and subterfuge will hear loud alarm bells ringing. Notice once again the claim being made that the science is not settled. This is straight out of the sophisticated corporate denialists’ playbook. They seize on remaining public doubt and fan it up even though the science is largely settled. It is more subtle and insidious than outright denial. Notice the broad church of belief admitted to the hall of science as if science were about belief rather than evidence. Notice the use of the word “agnostic” and the misuse of the word “sceptic” when “denialist” (as in denier of empirical evidence) should be used. Notice the use of “IPCC position” instead of “scientific consensus” which would be stronger and more accurate. Language is important and this is disingenuous rhetoric designed to manipulate perceptions.

    The clincher and proof of where their views really lie (pun intended) are the picture links to special feature articles like “IPCC – click here to view flaws in the process” and “False Alarms – click here for a list of false alarms and erroneous predictions”.

    Wikipedia tells us this about Lord Lawson, founder of GWPF.

    “Lawson is very sceptical of climate change and has denied that global warming is taking place to such a large degree that is usually claimed.” (Gee, that’s poor English Wikipedia!)

    And this (just to place him ideologically);

    “Lawson was a key proponent of the Thatcher Government’s privatisation policy. During his tenure at the Department of Energy he set the course for the later privatisations of the gas and electricity industries and on his return to the Treasury he worked closely with the Department of Trade and Industry in privatising British Airways, British Telecom, and British Gas.”

    It is clear, even on this amount of circumstantial evidence (and using our standard and hopefully now in-built Machiavellian-meter, Weasel-wordometer, Corporate-spin anemometer, Greenwash detector and Astroturfing Roundup Guide) that the push for CSG is a standard corporate greenwashing ploy to feign that it is clean and destined to substitute for coal use.

    Don’t fall for this patently obvious greenwashing of CSG.

  3. Let’s all go on a methane release orgy. Success to be measured if we manage to go out with a bang!

  4. Interesting arguement, and worth considering. However, if we accept that 2% leakage, either in extraction or transmission, is enough to cancel the benefits relative to coal, a leakage rate of, say 1.5% would be enough to make the benefits so small I’m not sure they’re worth worrying about.

  5. All rather unimportant in the scheme of things. The chickens already back to roost. Only a cretin imagines that it doesnt get worse from here.

  6. Rainman economists, rainman policymakers and politicians waiting for leadership from the public. Maybe this is why evidence ofintelligent life is hard to find? Shortly after industrialisation it destroys itself.

  7. Even if fugitive methane and aquifer damage weren’t a problem and CSG genuinely replaced coal fired baseload rather than added to it, there are still huge problems. Long run we want 80% CO2 reductions not 50%. Then there is the issue of alternative uses. As oil depletes globally and Australia’s oil imports increase further then compressed natural and coal seam gas can be used as a diesel substitute in tens of thousands of heavy vehicles. That demand may be permanent since battery powered semi trailers appear to be technically infeasible.

    NG and CSG are also needed to smooth out the variability of wind power. While some believe solar panels power air conditioners in hot weather it is gas turbine generators that pick up the load as the sun sets but the heat lingers on. Finally there is the problem that the south eastern States SA, Vic and Tas face natural gas depletion well within the time frame for running combined cycle gas fired generators. Perhaps some CSG from the north eastern States Qld and NSW could be piped southward, in which case the resource won’t last as long.

    In my opinion the Feds should prepare a white paper on Australia’s outlook for a ‘methane’ economy covering NG, CSG and biogas. How much will we need by mid century? Should gas rich parts of Australia share with gas poor areas? Should domestic gas users pay the export price? Should fracking be banned in some areas? Gas as an oil substitute. Preparing for ultimate gas depletion. Should we aim for zero carbon baseload?

    Remember back in the Thatcher era the Brits thought North Sea natural gas would last forever. Now they are about to import gas from Siberia with the ever present risk of being cut off.

  8. Further to my post above, I would like to pose the following questions. It would be a particularly interesting case study to pose and investigate these questions with respect to Queensland. Queensland is a significant coal producing region for domestic use and export. We produce both coking coal and thermal coal. In addition we produce natural gas, some coal seam gas now plus a minor amount of oil. We import oil and/or finished refined products like gasoline, kerosene, diesel, avgas and kerosene based jet fuels. This illustrates our significant use of fossil fuels across the spectrum and our strong dependence on export of specific fossil fuels namely coking and thermal coal. All of this means that Qld is a significant fossil fuel province on a world scale (in terms of production) and a significant producer of greenhouse gases or greenhouse gas precursors (the raw mined product) also on a world scale.

    The questions. (Can anyone answer them with respect to Qld?)

    What is (or are) the actual intended destination use (or uses) of CSG?
    What other fossil fuel use is CSG meant to replace?
    Which of these uses are clear current (and/or planned) additional uses of fossil fuel?
    Which of these uses are clear current (and/or planned) substitution uses for CSG?
    (Clear distinctions must be made between current uses and planned uses. The state of development of planned uses and their probability of coming to fruition must also be assessed.)
    More specifically, which coal fired power stations are planned for obsolence and replacement by CSG fired power stations?
    What is the current probability of more coal fired power stations being built in Qld?
    What is the current probability of CSG fired power station being built in Qld and will they substitute or augment coal fired power?
    If we save this thermal coal use will it stay in the ground or be exported to be burnt in China, India etc.?
    Is CSG production (small wells dotted in many paddocks) scalable and pipeable (or truckable) to a CSG fired powerhouse? (Would trucking to a powerhouse be feasible?)

    These and many more questions seem to need answers.

    Prof JQ (on my reading) seems to place a lot of reliance on the market mechanism of the carbon price being capable of addressing these questions via the operations of the market itself. I am sceptical about this but ready to admit it as a (low likelihood) possibility. Several concerns arise.

    Will the carbon price be raised to a true level indicative of the negative externality risk of fossil fuels?
    Will state governments (provincial, parochial and purblind) like the Qld government willingly allow carbon pricing to rise to the point that coal must be left in the ground?
    Will coal mining interests allow this and will democratic polities be firm or greenwashed and manipulated?
    Will the desperation of an energy starved future mean that all fossil energy sources are stripped out and burned anyway?
    Can renewables fill the gap and fill it fast enough? (Two distinct questions.)
    Is the market mechanism alone sufficient especially given corporate oligopoly pressures to distort the market?
    Can only a strong dirigisme effort by democratic government, as and if so demanded by the democratic polity, effect the total transformation of fossil fuel powered corporate capitalism by say 2050?

  9. I can’t believe this, with regarding to carbon emission CSG is a better alternative but CSG is nevertheless one of the economic activities that will cause very significant negative externality.

    Didn’t the Santos chemical spill out alarm anyone? To state my point coal does have higher CO2 emission that damages the atmosphere but CSG should never be considered as a “good alternative”. As people stated the damage it does to agricultural land and whats more is the possibility of contamination of underground watertable.

    It’s just it isn’t it? Australian people don’t appreciate the luxury to drink out of the tap instead they want to live like people in China where they starting to use water filter and the need of boiling water. If people don’t mind doing that, then the ecological system will, as wild life dies from the contamination of the water source.

    Please don’t ever suggest CSG is “good”, it maybe better than coal in CO2 emission but it’s possible damage to the eco system is far worse.

  10. I agree that we shouldn’t rule out CSG… But the clean, ‘transition’ fuel narrative trundled out by APPEA and the Government is not grounded in any publicly available research. Howarth has been criticised for his work on shale gas, and yet his research has been supported by numbers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA – finding a mean leakage of 4% for Shale). The Tyndall Centre concludes that it is possible that unconventional gas may be roughly equivalent, although they also claim that estimates are not based on peer reviewed emissions data.

    Industry has consistently claimed that CSG is clean, and yet they’ve gone to impressive lengths to avoid releasing the research that has been undertaken (Worley Parsons) and the State Government, by its own admission, has not engaged in any life cycle emissions assessment before granting leases, assuming that emissions are equivalent to natural gas.

    If 2% of the gas extracted is leaked in start to finish operations, the GHG benefits of natural gas combustion are lost, and unconventional gas proves as bad as mean black coal emissions. This is using a GWP of 25 for methane – this being the hundred year figure (although I would think that using a 20yr figure is more relevant considering the pace at which we are exhausting the 2degC budget, and that the actions of the next 20years may well decide the trajectory of the next 100).

    The CSG industry has approximately 4,700 CSG wells, and it plans to have 40,000 by 2030.

    We are building billions of dollars of fossil fuel infrastructure based on claims that are not comprehensively assured. Maybe we should validate the claims made by Industry before granting them their leases? I’m not sure their primary interest is the good of mankind. Although, it may well be.

    (I can provide links for these claims, but didn’t wish to trigger the spam filter)

  11. Other attractive features of CSG fuelled combined cycle plants include low capital cost, fast build times, lack of unsightly mines and railroads and air cooling not needing coastlines or rivers for water supply. Example http://www.originenergy.com.au/2081/Darling-Downs-Power-Station. Then there’s lower carbon tax than a coal fired station.

    However developments in Gladstone area could be raining on this parade. When liquefaction plants put liquid gas on the export market the ‘world price’ is much higher. I’d guess domestic power plants are paying $4 or so per gigajoule for gas. Recently the Japanese have paid $15 per gigajoule for LNG, admittedly with higher handling costs but less than 10% I’d guess. Most overseas customers don’t have those pesky carbon taxes. If the price of raw gas escalates it could erase all the other cost advantages.

  12. A couple of quick points on CSG.

    1. Not all CSG is the same. AIUI, wherever coal is mined, there is methane. Using methane that would otherwise vent to the atmosphere (especially if the distance between the mine and the plant using it is small), sounds like a pretty good move. Your marginal footprint may be zero or even negative. This is obviously different from going to a greenfields site, drilling wells, hydrofracking and so forth. Here, the margin of utility might be high.
    2. More generally though, I’m unimpressed in practice with the arguments for gas v coal. Even putting aside whether the gas is in practice substituted for or additional to coal (and frankly, absent an unforeseeably high and ubiquitous carbon price, I don’t see that actually being a big factor) or the ancillary ecological footprint questions such as leakage, unless there’s a huge margin of utility in practice, is it worth it?

    If you fall out of an aircraft at altitude, opening your jacket and attempting to present a larger surface area will slow your fall, but when you hit the ground a few seconds later than if you accept your fate and orient head first, the results aren’t likely to be any better. Perhaps you will make marginally less mess.

    The question for advocates of CSG to answer is — would substituting coal for CSG be consistent with stabilising atmospheric inventories at a safe level? In practice, the world probably needs to stabilise at no more than about 400ppmv, and probably manage that well before 2030, to be fairly confident of keeping to the no more than 2degC above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100. If CSG substitution cannot, even in the most optimistic scenario, get us there, then the advantage simply isn’t enough. If CSG turns out to be too little and too late, and massive Arctic albedo declines and we loss of the permafrost negates our efforts, then the notional advantages will be just that — notional. When you’re running for the closing train doors, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put in or how fast you go. All that matters is that you make it before the doors close. If you don’t, you’re no better off than the person who made only a token effort. Unlike the person running for the train though, we don’t know how much time we have in practice. We don’t know when the doors will close. Opting for a solution that is 50% as marginally harmful in a notional best case scenario may serve no better purpose than to foster cognitive dissonance. The solution must not only be relatively feasible, but absolutely feasible including in schedule terms.

    Does anyone really believe that CSG meets this standard? I’m yet to read anyone argue that case with plausible modelling. It’s one thing to argue that gas fired generators supporting economies based almost entirely on low lifecycle carbon sources and low-per-capita energy demand might be able to meet this standard. Suggesting a straight swap for coal will be OK sounds madcap to me.

  13. The 20-year timeframe is entirely indefensible. We’ve been going on for ages about how terrible climate change will be for future generations, and suddenly Howarth wants to change to a much shorter timeframe that just happens to suit his case. Give me a break!

  14. @BilB

    Hmm … I had a substantial (link free and no mention of soc|al|sm) post in moderation. I ran the “test” just after and it went.

    Now it’s gone. Not happy … I almost always save but this time didn’t. 😦

    Short comment. The argument for CSG is specious all over the place. Even if it worked as its proponents claim, it would be too little too late — like running for a train whose doors are closing from too far away. CSG must not only be bettwer than coal and a replacement for coal but so much better that it does the job we need it to do in the time frame we need it to do it in — and unlike the train doors, we aren’t even sure when the deadline is.

    There’s simply no way it’s that much better. Unless it’s a backstop for near zero energy in an energy parsimonious world, its claimed marginal advantages just aren’t enough to make it feasible, even if believed, and even if it did sub for coal.

  15. The depletion curve for ‘fracked’ gas (such as CSG) should also be thrown into the mix when trying to argue that it’s ‘good’.

    From memory, it hits peak very quickly and the decline goes in an ‘off a cliff’ shape. Maybe 80% produced in 3-4 years (??).

    It looks like a ponzi – sucking up cash, laying waste to our land and perhaps water, delivering royalties only on a percentage of ‘value’ extracted AFTER all expenses are deducted. The laws and powers to arrest people and enter land (particularly under the Petroleum & Gas Act) are massively stacked in favour of the Fossil Fuel cowboys.

    As an interesting historical aside, Moonie (out near Tara) was Australia’s first commercially worked oil-field on any scale. It started pumping in about May 1961. The Moonie pipeline was a US piece of engineering which ran across the range and took oil to Brisbane.

    A few years ago (2 or 3?), it was finally shut down because the field had declined to below any commercial level of production. About two years ago, the now neglected pipeline had decayed to such an extent that there was a substantial oil spill. I think it was around Coopers Plains. The taxpayer and environment picked up the tab. There is still a large amount of oil in the abandoned pipeline just oozing out as it falls into further disrepair.

    Those who don’t learn from history… run the world!

  16. I think I would have preferred to see Prof JQ hold back from actually arguing that “CSG is less environmentally damaging than coal”. It looks like an endorsement and one that may be premature given his role in the CSG “Behind the Seams” Project.

    “A group of us, kicked off by Mark Bahnisch and others at Larvatus Prodeo, and with hosting from Crikey, have started a project to provide information and a forum for discussion about Coal Seam Gas in the context of the Queensland election, where it’s likely to be a hot issue.” – Prof J.Q.

    Arguing that “CSG is less environmentally damaging than coal” begs a lot of questions. Many of these questions have been asked by myself and others earlier in this thread. The issue of whether CSG (in full “lifecycle”) is less environmentally damaging than coal does not have an absolute answer. It has a relative answer or rather a set of relative answers which are relative to a lot of other assumptions, field conditions, complex interacting factors and so on.

    If you ask whether getting one kilojoule of energy out of pure CH4 yields less CO2 emissions than getting one kilojoule of energy out of the purest anthracite coal available all under laboratory conditions of (near) perfect combustion etc. then the question has an absolute answer. In the field (in many varying fields actually) the question cannot be asked in this simple chemical form. You have to look at the whole mining and combustion lifecycle and a myriad of leaks and side processes along the way. Also, you cannot assume (for CH4 or coal) that the atmospheric CO2 emission is the only negative externality.

    It would be better for Prof J.Q. (in my opinion) to maintain a position one step back from (seeming) outright endorsement of CSG in particular and simply champion his views on the right level for a carbon price and the appropriate legislative, regulatory and market mechanisms which he considers will produce the best mitigation results across the board (be they switches from coal to CSG, coal to solar, other switches and/or combinations thereof.

    The one case I can think of where direct advocacy of CSG might hold up is if there is a close to watertight case of the following kind under the aegis of a strong carbon tax.

    1. CSG can be used to substitute for brown coal power production.
    2. This is technically and commercially feasible.
    3. It is clear that the brown coal so substituted will stay in the ground indefinitely/forever.
    4. CH4 escape, aquifer pollution, farmland damage and other negative externalities can be very firmly shown to be of a minimal nature compared to the damage of CO2 emissions from brown coal.

    I don’t think these above conditions can be met in Qld. I fear our good quality black coal (thermal and coking) will all get mined anyway and be burnt locally or exported. I also fear that too much farmland and too many aquifers will be damaged by CSG activities and these areas appear to overlap greatly in many locales.

  17. Absent the political will for steeply rising carbon pricing locally and in it’s absence internationally it will be more gas on top of more coal. CSG as a means to reduce emissions – like CCS – is first and foremost the promotion of illusion in the service of delay. The companies that dominate CSG are as firmly opposed to carbon pricing in the service of emissions reductions as any coal mining companies. A relatively small proportion of the rising CSG revenues these companies will ‘invest’ in purchasing public confusion and misinformed opinion, not to mention the rising royalties that will feed government spending and short term prosperity at the cost of irreplaceable environmental capital – will ensure there won’t be restrictions on continuing growth of fossil fuel extraction and use.

    Sorry Pr Quiggin but without profound shifts in policy here and around the world – whether as the foundation of or as response to profound shifts in the levels of public concern for the climate problem – CSG will be as well as and not instead of other fossil fuels.

  18. @Ken Fabian

    Boiled down, that is my position too. Prof J.Q. has asserted his pro-CSG position but not supported it in any way that is even nearly adequate. In my post above Ken Fabian’s I outlined a wiser position for Prof J.Q. to take.

    I kinda miss the 1990s Prof J.Q. I fear the 2012 version has moved somewhat to the right on the economics front (though not on the social-democratic front) compared to his clear economic mid-left position of the 1990s.

  19. The way I would see it, Fran, is that CSG would be usefull in the future as backup energy to solar, and especially useful because it is distributed over a wide area. So as backup energy its use would be moderate rather than extreme and the resource would therefore last for an extremely long time. That would be the stategic approach to consumption.

    What is happening now is just full on greed driven, irresponsible, wasteful and ill-considered resource extraction that will be regretted from many perspectives in the not too distant future.

  20. In theory when we move to an ETS in 2015 the choice of coal vs CSG should be either/or. For the same amount of CO2 we get twice as many megawatt hours of gas fired electricity as coal fired. However that is not necessarily reflected in profitability to the generator. The raw fuel cost of coal is going to stay cheap (allegedly $6 a tonne for brown coal), ageing power stations will have been written down in the balance sheets and debt will have been largely repaid. If the old power station has another 20 years in it might as well work it to death and wear the cost of carbon tax. Not mentioning Hazelwood by name.

    The big unknown is whether CSG will still be cheap in 10 years time. As pointed out the output of fracked wells declines sharply. The escaped methane police could make life hard and a farmer could win a damages case against a CSG driller. The alleged 250 trillion cubic feet (a tcf is 20Mt) or nearly 5 billion tonnes of CSG may never materialise.

    Back to the ETS it’s always possible that freebies like dodgy offsets may mean the CO2 cap is soft. Remember if the ALP rule in 2015 we’re supposed to pay Indonesia to save the orangutans or somesuch. That’s to get emissions cuts back on track. Maybe there will be grand carbon amnesty instead. In short it there may be no CSG/coal tradeoff because the money isn’t right or the carbon umpire is looking the other way.

  21. The CSG/tradeoff, real or imagined, is not the only factor to consider in the absence of a worldwide ETS and a worldwide restriction on greenhouse gas emissions. With the addition of CSG opportunities there will be an increase in the aggregate amount of energy production from both because the price of energy (and for other uses) from these sources will be relatively lower than it would have been if CSG were not adopted.

  22. Ikonoclast – “Fallacy of substitution” pretty well describes it. Substitution is more an exercise in marketing than any genuine expression of intent IMO, no matter that there may arguably have been some genuine potential for gas as a transitional fuel as part of an aggressive emissions reduction program – beginning about 2 decades ago. A program that should, by now, be looking towards the phase out of gas.

    I’m not convinced that any corporatised energy sector would seek to build enough gas fired power to back up renewables and not lobby, advertise and tankthink public policy to leave out the renewables part – even if they showed any genuine commitment to abandoning coal at all. Which they don’t – CSG is primarily an export oriented industry. Electricity producers in Australia will continue to be the foot-dragging impediment to emissions reduction that they’ve shown themselves to be all along. Not that the foot-dragging of public owned energy producers in the hands of populist parliaments that prefer the pretense of the minimum necessary being too hard or, worse, the pretense that the climate problem is a lefty-green plot to undermine civilisation – look capable of doing better.

    I can’t see the growth of CSG as anything but the exploitation of coal that’s not economical to mine by other means. CSG is furthering the unrestrained growth of fossil fuels without any serious regard for the longer term costs and consequences.

  23. @Ken Fabian

    Quite right. Substitution is only a part of the story. The overall impact is not necessarily positive. Indeed, in the absence of binding global caps on greenhouse gas emissions the overall impact is most likely negative, even if industry analysis on CSG’s virtues were to be whole-heartedly believed. And, let’s face it, vested-interest would never lie to us, would it?

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