More Gas Pains on the Climate Front

A new study slated to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research reports that natural gas producers in the Denver-Julesberg Basin north of Denver are losing 4% of their gas to the air because of leaks and venting.

That lost gas is primarily methane (and a bit of other harmful pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, which contribute to Denver’s smog problem), which of course is not only a valuable product, but a potent greenhouse gas.

How potent?  It depends on the time frame.  Over a 20 year period, in other words the “short-term,” scientists report that methane has 105 times the heat trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.  In the “long-term,” or over 100 years, methane is 33 times more potent than carbon dioxide (this is because methane breaks down over time in the atmosphere, so after 100 years, is less potent).

So what does 4% mean in terms of actual greenhouse gas emissions?  Well, just looking  at Weld County, which is where the bulk of natural gas development has occurred in the Denver-Julesberg Basin, total production in 2011 was 212,958,693 thousand cubic feet according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, most of it methane.

4% of 212,958,693 thousand cubic feet is 8,518,347 thousand cubic feet.   And using the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy online methane converter, we can calculate that 8,518,347 thousand cubic feet equals 361,689,000 pounds, or 180,840 tons.

Now, greenhouse gases are usually measured in metric tons.  So again, using EPA’s handy converter, we can calculate that 180,840 tons of methane equals 164,056 metric tons.  That means that just in Weld County, the heart of the Denver-Julesberg Basin, natural gas producers are losing 164,056 metric tons of methane annually.

From a greenhouse gas standpoint, 164,056 metric tons of methane has the same impact as 17,225,880 metric tons of carbon dioxide, at least when considered over a 20 year period.  Over a 100 year period, it would equal 5,413,848 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Regardless of whether one looks at the 20-year or 100-year time-frame, that’s a lot of greenhouse gases.

According to another one of EPA’s handy online calculators, 17,225,880 metric tons of carbon dioxide is the same amount released annually by 3,377,624 passenger vehicles (check out the chart below).

In other words, losing 4% of all produced gas every year in the Denver-Julesberg Basin is like adding more than 3 million vehicles to the road.  That’s a potent punch to the climate.

Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production in Denver-Julesberg Basin and equivalent number of passenger vehicles.

Of course, this is based on natural gas production just in Weld County.  And, as the authors of this latest article point out, their estimates of lost gas don’t include “additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system.”

Is this an indictment of natural gas?  Certainly not.  But it continues to undermine its reputation as a cleaner alternative to coal, or a “bridge” to renewable energy.  It also emphasizes that the greenhouse gas footprint of this “cleaner” fuel may be stomping out the very progress we need to be making in the fight against global warming.

Colorado’s Impending Climate Catastrophe

It seemed reasonable and achievable when announced by former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter in 2007.  For the state to do its part to confront climate change, greenhouse gas emissions had to be cut 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

Unfortunately, meeting this modest goal is facing considerable hurdles in Colorado.  What’s even more unfortunate is that those hurdles seem to be coming from our new Governor, John Hickenlooper, who appears poised to hand the fate of our energy future (or at least 2/3 of it) over to the fossil fuel industry.

Here’s the scoop.  The Governor recently announced his goals for the Governor’s Energy Office.  Among them:

To develop and deliver a plan for a balanced energy portfolio.
Through a stakeholder engagement process, we will work to develop an energy portfolio to promote sustainable economic development by advancing the State’s energy market and industry, folding the New Energy Economy into a Balanced Energy Portfolio of 1/3 coal, 1/3 natural gas, and 1/3 renewable energy.

In other words, Governor Hickenlooper intends to literally divvy up Colorado’s energy future like a pie, with equals parts going to coal, natural gas, and renewables.

It seems very Solomon-like, proposing to split the baby three ways like this.  But remember, King Solomon never actually split the baby.  He simply wanted to find a solution.

In this case, Hickenlooper’s idea of a “balanced” energy portfolio would be a disaster, both for advancing clean energy and meeting our greenhouse gas reduction targets.  It would effectively cap renewable energy development and sustain coal and natural gas at levels that would prevent meaningful progress toward reducing greenhouse gases.

Consider that according to the Governor’s Energy Office, coal already provides 56.7% of our total electricity.  Lowering that to 33% amounts to a 42% reduction in coal-fired electricity in Colorado.


And coal-fired electricity generation is already the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado.  The most recent inventory shows that by 2020, emissions are expected to reach 44.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  Roughly speaking, a 42% reduction in coal could mean an 18 million metric ton reduction in 2020 carbon dioxide levels.

Of course, that doesn’t consider the natural gas increase.  The bump from 27 to 33% would amount to a 22% increase in gas.  And while natural gas doesn’t release as much carbon dioxide as coal, by 2020 gas-fired electricity is still projected to release 5.8 tons of carbon dioxide.  A 22% increase bumps that up to a little more than 7 million metric tons.

So in total, we’re looking at a reduction of possibly (and roughly) around 17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in Colorado.  Now, a reduction is great, but consider that to meet our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20% below 2005 levels by 2020, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization recently reported in its Colorado Climate Scorecard that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 54.6 million tons.

Obviously, 17 million is far short of the 54.6 million tons of greenhouse gases we need to cut just to meet our modest, near-term goal by 2020.  It also means we have little hope of meeting our 80% greenhouse gas reduction goal by 2050.

Now admittedly, this is all back of the envelope calculation, but it raises serious questions over the wisdom of Governor Hickenlooper’s vision of a “balanced” energy plan.  Clearly, when it comes to meeting our climate imperative, a 2/3 giveaway to the fossil fuel industry is about as imbalanced as it gets.  It really underscores the fact that the metrics used to develop a “balanced” energy plan can’t be as simple as divvying up a pie.  After all, if our goal is ultimately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, then a three-way split is probably the worst thing we could lock ourselves into.

Some will say Hickenlooper is just being pragmatic.  Yet being pragmatic means coming up with real solutions that both address our need for a smooth transition to cleaner energy and our need to combat global warming.  Sadly, Hickenlooper’s “pragmatism” in reality just seems to be another sign of political interference on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.

Just take his latest factually questionable pandering to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association a few weeks ago.  And let’s not forget what may be one of his most unnerving flip flops on global warming.  While schmoozing the coal industry, he purposefully distanced himself from climate science to appease his audience.  This, despite acknowledging during his campaign that:

In addition to carbon pollution’s causal connection to climate change — with all the potentially devastating impacts on our global environment — we also face challenges in Colorado, where warmer winters have led to the bark beetle infestation of our forests. That’s one reason I was proud to attend the international conference on climate change in Copenhagen.

He usually laughs it off, making some comment like, “Somehow I generally manage to get both sides upset.”  But he’s got it wrong.  He’s not making both sides upset.  He’s making policy calls that give the fossil fuel industry dominance over our energy portfolio at the expense of meeting our climate goals.

He can laugh off his pandering and flip-flops all he wants, but the metrics that matter are a stinging indictment.

And I’m not alone in pointing out that reducing carbon dioxide is what really matters.  Just take this recent (and frankly surprising) quote from Dick Kelly, the outgoing leader of Xcel:

I’d be OK if there were never any more coal….We have a problem with CO2.  The science is done. It is clear that CO2 is not good.

And while it’s true that Kelly believes that we may be able to clean up coal at some point (which I have some differences with), his statements are certainly enlightening and on-point.  I adamantly disagree with Dick Kelly’s leadership past at Xcel Energy, but I can’t deny that statements like this are exactly the kind of leadership we need right now.

Unfortunately, the only leadership Hickenlooper seems to be showing is his willingness to ensure Colorado never meets its 20% or its 80% greenhouse gas reduction target.  The 2/3 giveaway to the fossil fuel industry is a catastrophe in the making for Colorado.  Hickenlooper would do well to stick to science and common sense as he charts our energy future here in Colorado.

Hell, maybe he should tap Dick Kelly to head the Governor’s Energy Office.