Reliance on Unconventional Gas is No Good for Climate, Says Scientist Tom Wigley

Fri, 2011-09-09 15:04Carol Linnitt
Carol Linnitt's picture

Reliance on Unconventional Gas is No Good for Climate, Says Scientist Tom Wigley

A partial shift from coal to unconventional gas on a worldwide scale will continue to accelerate climate change for a significant amount of time, according to Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). An increased reliance on gas would eventually reverse the warming trend but would only decelerate climate change by a few tenths of a degree. According to Wigley’s findings, that miniscule change will only feasibly occur sometime between 2050 and 2140, depending on the severity of fugitive methane from gas drilling, processing, and transport operations. 

Tom Wrigley, senior research associate at NCAR, is due to publish these findings next month in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters. The journal recently received significant attention on this topic after publishing the striking findings of Professors Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea. The Cornell University scientists performed a lifecycle analysis of the major fossil fuels to discover that unconventional gas offers little to no climate advantage over coal. 

The hotly contested findings sent a shock wave through the gas industry and environmental community alike, challenging the notion that the continent’s vast reserves of unconventional gas could or should serve as an alternative, interim fuel during the switch to a low-carbon economy. Wigley’s findings also pose a significant challenge to this assumption.
“Relying more on natural gas would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, but it would do little to help solve the climate problem,” Wigley told Science Daily. “It would be many decades before it would slow down global warming at all, and even then it would just be making a difference around the edges.”

Wigley’s research pays special attention to the particular atmospheric effects of burning gas and coal. When burned, gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal while producing a significant amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that reacts with other atmospheric gases such as ozone and water vapor. However, the particulate associated with burning coal, such as sulfur and ash, produces a cooling effect by preventing sunlight from entering the earth’s atmosphere. The pollutants associated with burning the carbon-intensive fuel, while not desirable by any means, have the ironic effect of counteracting coal’s tremendous global warming potential.
Like the Howarth article, methane leakages from gas production are important to Wigley’s findings. However, the figures surrounding fugitive methane emissions are at best imprecise. Plugging in a variation of methane leakage rates from zero to ten percent, Wigley was able to simulate a spectrum of results, none of which bode well for unconventional gas.

“Whatever the methane leakage rate, you can’t get away from the additional warming that will occur initially because, by not burning coal, you’re not having the cooling effect of sulfates and other particles,” says Wigley. “This particle effect is a double-edge sword because reducing them is a good thing in terms of lessening air pollution and acid rain. But the paradox is when we clean up these particles, it slows down efforts to reduce global warming.”

Any increase in global warming puts already fragile ecosystems at an even greater risk.

Wigley’s findings mean yet another challenge for the gas industry and their continuous claim that unconventional gas can and should provide the pathway to a clean energy future. It will be interesting to see how the gas industry responds to this new important contribution to the evolving science surrounding unconventional gas.


If you actually read the details of these ‘findings’ you will see what a joke this whole thing is.

It is a known fact that natural gas is at least 50% cleaner than coal, a fact that Tom Wigley does not dispute.

But with his twisted logic he would have you believe that switching to clean burning natural gas will harm the planet.

Wigley found that a 50 percent reduction in coal and a corresponding increase in natural gas use would lead to a slight increase in worldwide warming for the next 40 years of about 0.1 degree Fahrenheit. According to Wigley “…you can’t get away from the additional warming that will occur initially because, by not burning coal, you’re not having the cooling effect of sulfates and other particles” In other words, let’s keep burning filthy coal, it’s better for the planet!

What Wigley and every other fanatical greeny won’t tell you is that cheap and abundant natural gas will push the need for renewable energy implementation far into the next century, something they definitely don’t want and will fight against tooth and nail.

It’s clean and cheap, what is the problem?

As I understand it, nat gas does indeed emit 50% less CO2 when burned.  Nevertheless, that does not mean that the resource is completely clean.  There are air quality concerns near the extraction site as well as the fluids used during fracking.  Inadvertent methane releases also contribute to global warming.  These externality effects ought to be factored into the price of natural gas, either through regulations or taxation.

Wigley is not using twisted logic.  He is merely describing the likely climatic reaction from a large scale switch to natural gas.  Even if our total CO2 emissions did decrease by half from a complete switch to nat gas (very optimistic), the resulting rate of temperature rise would still be many times faster than any temp rise throughout paleohistory.  Furthermore, there is no guarantee that abundant nat gas supplies would last well into the next century.  A peak in production would likely occur before that point.

If the lifecycle of natural gas use did not emit any methane or carbon dioxide (sequestration and safe extraction practices), then I don’t think that “fanatical greenies” would have much of a problem with natural gas.  Also, regulations ought to be in place to ensure that the price of natural gas reflects the environmental risks associated with extraction.  Natural gas is not completely clean, and it may not be truly cheap given a fair externality-priced comparison with wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, hydro, algal biodiesel, etc.

Hank_, you seem to not like “fanatical greenies”.  Why is that?  What have they done?  Why are they fanatical?

Also, what plan would you put in place if we were absolutely guaranteed that climate would change in undesirable ways if we didn’t cut our CO2 emissions down to zero within the next several decades (around 2050)?  What sources of energy would you use and how would you phase them in effectively and quickly?

“ In other words, let’s keep burning filthy coal, it’s better for the planet!” 

Those are your words, not his.

  And you are not accounting for the methane.  Actually, both the methane and the cooling aerosols are relatively short lived compared with CO2.  So, they have to be more or less continuously released to positively or negatively effect warming.     Methane is 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2.   Some of the methane changes to CO2.

  The shorter term but much stronger greenhouse effect from methane, could help speed up warming, resulting in more CO2 and methane being released from natural sources, and so on in a feedback loop.     


Well, some hydro and maybe in the future some solar PV.  But primarily low-carbon (zero emissions, only carbon from construction) nuclear power plants.

Love carbon; leave it in the ground.


If we are going nuclear, we are going to have to get past old design water cooling. Nuclear in small plants using liquid salt heat transfer might work if the nuclear material is limited in such a way that melt downs can’t happen. Locating them away from earthquake zones might be an idea too.

Nothing unconventional (that I know of) about burning natural gas.

Oil and gas that can be recovered using simple vertical wells into a large reservoir is considered “conventional.” This is the technique that got us started into the petroleum age.

On the other hand, gas and oil that required new technology and changes in economics in order to be exploited is considered “unconventional.” These unconventional resources include tight sands gas, shale gas, shale oil, tar sands, oil shale, and others.

Most of our current North American glut in natural gas is due to recent exploitation of shale gas and tight sands gas using directional drilling, horizontal drilling, and hydraulic fracturing, (i.e., “unconventional” gas). There ain’t much left of “conventional” oil and gas, thus any future development of these fuels will be “unconventional.”

And so if we shut down unconventional gas, supply will dwindle, shortages will occur - in winter - and prices will skyrocket. Bitter pill to swallow.

The situation is more complicated than a choice between unconventional gas or no heat during the winter.  I don’t think anybody is advocating that we shut down the natural gas industry overnight.

Other sources of energy as well as energy efficiency measures can be brought online in a large way to eventually make natural gas obsolete.  This needs to be done at some point anyway.  Natural gas is a finite resource and still contributes a substantial amount to greenhouse warming.  Putting off this transition will merely leave future citizens with potentially high cost/damage to the economy.  We have to come together in order to come to a fair, equitable, and economic way to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel.

RickJames, say that hypothetically we need to mitigate climate change or drastic economic consequences would occur, what plan would you use to reduce our CO2 emissions to zero within the next several decades (say 2050)?  What resources and economic policies would be fair to implement?

Nuclear - lots of next generation nuclear.
Tidal projects might help a bit
Wind is more trouble than it’s worth
Concentrated solar should be developed
Everything has to be baseload

Big huge ugly tax breaks for nuclear development. Energy companies need to be strong to implement these things.

Cancel the social Welfare system. It’s a big unfunded lie anyway.

Cancel it. No more cheques for anybody. Go to your brother, your aunt or your church if you’re starving. Dig a ditch. Beg. Pay your doctor directly or beg him for charity. Or buy some insurance.

If this is an emergency start acting like it.

If co2 is the problem and you reject nuclear you aren’t even trying.

Quit dreaming that big fat government will solve your problems.

Well that’s off the top of my head.

It would require building more than 1150 nuclear reactors to meet current demand. The old plants are now trying to figure out what to do with their spent fuel. Nuclear is out! solar may hold some answers but they must get them economical and durable enough to last. Actually we have enough natural gas to provide heat AND electricity to whole US for more than 100 years. What needs to be done is to convert it to alternative fuels. The best way to get hydrogen is natural gas. Natural gas can be converted directly to electricity (see Bloom Energy) Natural gas can be converted to diesel fuel and jet fuel that burns cleaner that conventional fuels. (see Rentech)Maybe start working on 100% CO2 capture or conversion in gas fired generators. Gas does hold the answer to our immediate energy needs and provides cleaner safer energy while we develop alternative fuels that really do work.

Any ideas on transportation and agriculture solutions that would get the CO2 elimination job done?  Is enhanced geothermal an ok power generation technology?  Any thoughts on getting a sustainable biofuel industry off the ground (I would say likely algae-based biodiesel produced on marginal or useless land)?

It surprises me that you advocate huge tax breaks for nuclear (a form of selective welfare) while at the same time denouncing social welfare.  Besides, I’m not sure how social welfare is all that relevant, unless maybe cancelling it frees up more resources for energy development.  Personally, I would advocate a carbon tax (small at first) where the revenues would help fund carbon-less and carbon-reducing technologies, split based on merit.  Maybe a National Academy of Engineering review or a collection of unbiased science/engineering/economic bodies would decide the split.  It would be a simple device for discouraging CO2 emissions.  Does that sound legit?

>> “If this is an emergency start acting like it.”

Oh, you can bet some are.  Where do you think the term “alarmist” came from?  For example, I ride my bicycle to work and around town, rain or shine.  I own a Prius and plan to buy an electric car.  I switched my electricity generation supplier, which is now sourced from wind power (not much more expensive).  I buy mostly local sourced food.  I work as an engineer for a company that develops wind, solar, nuclear, and energy efficiency solutions for industry/defense.  I save as much money as I can and donate what I can to advocacy efforts, renewable tech, sustainable biofuel development, etc.  I talk with other people within my sphere of influence concerning the urgency of our situation.  Just because some people don’t psychologically treat the issue like an immediate emergency doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.  We likely still have some time to prevent worse economic and human damages after all.

>> “Quit dreaming that big fat government will solve your problems.”

Gov’t won’t solve all our problems for sure, but if we let the CO2 emission problem continue for a decade or two you can bet big fat government will step in to conduct an overbearing WWII style mobilization/conservation effort if a climate tipping point is reached.  I would rather face facts and address the issue now, keeping the gov’t out of the solution as much as possible.  I think a carbon tax is the most transparent and simplest way to do it, simple enough that governments probably won’t screw it up.

Hey, it is great that you have a tentative CO2 solution in mind.  I don’t know where you fall on the climate skeptic scale, but many I talk to don’t have any viable solution in mind in case they are wrong.  I think they have a bit of a bias against climate change since all the proposed solutions to combat climate change seem abhorrent to them.

I’m mostly just fooling around with this stuff as you might have noticed. 

I’m challenging ideas and assumptions but I’m also smart enough to know that I don’t know science. I don’t call myself a skeptic anymore, because I lack the education to be an actual skeptic. What I am is a critic of the climate change message. Often because it’s clear that many want to use climate change to further political agendas.


You know, for a lot of skeptics it doesn’t seem to be about the science.  From what I can tell, the rub comes in from the message or the solutions.

What do you see wrong with the message?  Who is taking advantage of climate change in order to further a political agenda?  If climate change does indeed have the potential for profound earth-changing impacts, would these people still have an “agenda” in your view?

I would describe a political agenda as a desire to seize or increase control over others. Any kind of major problem, real or imagined will be used as a pretext for gathering control. Gathered power in the hands of humans always leads to unexpected abuses.

I really think that problem solving is always secondary to gaining power in the hearts of men. The climate issue is just a big hammer people are trying to use to fulfill political agendas.

So is there any solution to reduce CO2 that will not allow people to use the “big hammer” and take too much control?  Is a transparent carbon tax too controlling?

I mean, I don’t want a fascist style regime, but I also know that major scientific bodies conclude that CO2 emissions can’t go up forever either.


We could stop the drilling. Use what conventional gas we have left and import the rest. 2007 to present our imports on natural gas have dropped even while consumption has increased and if we keep drilling we could be completely free of imported gas and maybe start exporting. However if we decide to stop the drilling we always have imports to fall back on. We will by our gas from the other side of the globe and then they will have global warming problems on their side of the globe.


Today, legislative and lobbyist members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) voted on model legislation promoting both exports of gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (CNG)

Dubbed a “...

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