Why Germany should leave coal behind

by John Brian Shannon

Germany, a thriving economic powerhouse under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, is also a renewable energy superstar and a country that is loaded with potential.

Lately, the Germans have taken a break from aggressively adding renewable energy to their grid by ending a lucrative feed-in-tariff (FiT) subsidy program that ramped-up the adoption of solar, wind and biomass installations across the country.

Not that these so-called ‘lucrative’ subsidies approached anywhere near what fossil fuel and nuclear power plant operators receive and have received since the postwar period began, as all energy in Germany (like most countries) is heavily subsidized by taxpayers but only the (much smaller) renewable energy subsidies get the headlines. Go figure.

Chancellor Angela Merkel made the courageous decision to accelerate the shutdown Germany’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 after stress tests of German nuclear power plants showed safety concerns existed within the their nuclear fleet. She ushered in meaningful FiT subsidies to speed the German Energiewende program towards its goal of transition to renewable energy and greater energy efficiency — which had received only sporadic subsidies prior to Merkel.

Snapshot of the German Energiewende program

  • A popular Germany-only program to move towards a highly industrialized, sustainable green economy
  • Full phase-out of nuclear energy by 2022
  • 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050
  • Minimum of 80% renewables in the power sector
  • 50% increase in energy efficiency by 2050

Germany’s utility companies haven’t seen change like this since WWII. After a century of serving conventionally-generated electrical power to a captive electricity market — approximately 1/3 of all German electricity is now generated via renewable energy if you also include biomass and hydro-power. That’s historic change by any standard.

Germany-renewable-energy-power-capacity at October 29, 2014 Fraunhofer Institute image

Although solar panel outputs are lower during the winter months, over the summer of 2014 renewable energy generated more than 75% of total demand on many of those days. Not bad, for 5 years of relatively minor renewable energy subsidy euros provided by a (now ended) Feed-in-Tariff!

Germany renewable energy generation for the first 10 months of 2014 courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Another benefit of the switch to renewable energy was the added billions of euros of economic activity generated annually by European solar panel and wind manufacturing companies like Vestas, SolarWorld, Siemens, ABB, and the jobs created for hundreds of SME renewable energy installation companies in the country.

Exports of German solar panels and wind turbines went through the stratosphere once Germany proved to the world that solar and wind could replace lost nuclear power generation capacity at a much lower cost than building new, multi-billion euro, nuclear or coal-fired power plants with their massive footprint on the land and their obscene water usage levels.

Germany renewable energy power generation change (in absolute terms) for the first 10 months of 2014 compared to the first 10 months of 2013. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

For Germany, installing their own solar, wind and biomass power plants proved to the world that large-scale renewable energy could add huge capacity to a nation’s electrical grid and that different types of renewable energy could work together to balance the over-hyped ‘intermittency problem’ of renewable energy.

It turns out that in Germany, during the long, hot days of summer when solar panels are putting out their maximum power the wind actually tapers off — but at night the wind blows at a very reliable rate. Karmic bonus! That about covers the summer months.

During the winter months in Germany, the wind blows day and night and adds significant amounts of reliable power to the national grid.

Germany solar and wind energy are complementary, helping to stabilize the German electricity grid without adding pollution to the air. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

And now, all of that renewable energy capacity is operating without FiT subsidy — quite unlike the coal, nuclear, and oil and gas power generation in the country which require huge and ongoing subsidies every day of the year to continue operations. That’s every day since 1946, meine Freunde!

Also a factor with nuclear and coal-fired power plants are the healthcare spending to combat the adverse health effects of fossil fuel burning/air pollution on humans and animals, on the agriculture sector, and the huge security infrastructure that is necessary to counter the potential theft of nuclear materials, to defeat possible nuclear terrorism and prevent nuclear proliferation.

While the rest of Europe (with the exception of notables like Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg) wallowed in recession or near-recession since 2008, the German economic powerhouse not only set global export records year-on-year, it bailed-out numerous other EU economies like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and others, and began an unprecedented domestic renewable energy program. And now, Germany is an electricity net exporter.

That’s heady stuff, even for this industrious nation of 82 million.

Germany imports and exports of electricity 2001-2014. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Where to next?

Not only has Germany added many TeraWatt hours (TWh) of clean, renewable energy to its electrical grid to replace lost nuclear power generation, it is now an electricity net exporter — raking in multi-millions of euros per year at present — and make that an electricity exporting superpower if they ever decide to revive their now defunct Feed-in-Tariff subsidy for renewable energy.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany:

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 5 more years, *all lignite-fired (brown coal) electrical power generation* could be eliminated within 10 years.

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 10 more years, *all coal-fired electrical power generation* (not just lignite coal) could be eliminated within 10 years.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would save millions of Germans (and Polish, Swiss, Austrians, and others living downwind of German smokestacks) from breathing toxic lignite-fired air pollution. Think of the health care savings and the taxes that must support it, especially as their demographic ages. Some people believe that the health care savings alone could far exceed the cost of any FiT subsidy.

Not only that, but as a result of leaving coal behind, historic buildings, concrete bridges and roadways would require less maintenance to repair the spalling caused by the acid rain from coal burning. Additionally, Germany would save the millions of litres of water consumed annually by the coal industry.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would create thousands more jobs for solar, wind, and biomass manufacturing and construction. And the agriculture sector would begin to show ever-improving crop outputs. And, clean air for all visitors, expats and German citizens to breathe!

A note about (renewable energy) Hybrid power plants

So-called Hybrid power plants offer the best of both worlds in the renewable energy space by providing plenty of electricity day and night. This Hybrid power plant uses solar panels and wind turbines, while others can incorporate biomass or hydro-electricity dams, along with wind or solar, or both.
Hybrid power plants provide electricity day and night.

An energy policy stroke of genius for Germany could come in the form of a new subsidy (a FiT or other type of subsidy) that could be offered to promote the installation of Hybrid power plants — whereby 30% of electricity generated at a given power plant site would come from solar and the balance could come from any combination of wind, biomass, or hydro-electric generation. (30% solar + 70% various renewable = 100% of total per site output)

As long as all of the electrical power generation at a site is renewable energy and it works to balance the intermittency of solar power — it should qualify for the (hereby proposed) Energiewende Hybrid Power Plant subsidy.

When all the different types of renewable energy work in complementary fashion on the same site, energy synergy (the holy grail of the renewable energy industry) will be attained.

More jobs, billions of euros worth of electricity exports to the European countries bordering Germany, better agricultural outputs, lower health care spending and less environmental damage — all at a lower subsidy level than coal and nuclear have enjoyed for decades — are precisely why Germans should renew their commitment to renewable energy.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

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G20 Brisbane 2014 Hints at Eliminating Fossil Fuel Subsidies


As the G20 Brisbane 2014 wraps up, leaders discussed the eventual elimination of the massive global subsidies paid to the fossil fuel industry which topped some $600 billion dollars last year, slightly more than last year’s $550 billion and 2012′s $500 billion.

Meanwhile, non-polluting renewable energy continues to receive peanuts — well under $100 billion dollars worldwide in 2014.

At the G20 Brisbane 2014 Summit leaders discussed elimination of the massive $600 billion dollars subsidy paid to the fossil fuel industry in 2014.
At the G20 Brisbane 2014 Summit leaders discussed elimination of the massive $600 billion dollars subsidy paid to the fossil fuel industry in 2014.

Clean energy does have it’s detractors, similar to the criticisms by the detractors of aircraft travel 100 years ago when people traveled by ship or by train. But, “The times, they are a changin’,” rings true in this century too!

“We do it this way, because we’ve always done it this way,” is no longer good enough. The fossil fuel industry provides the fuel for the world’s transportation industry and it is the most heavily subsidized industry on the planet and has been given carte blanche to operate in any way it sees fit.

Fine. We needed the oil. Whatever has taken place was done with our tacit approval. But with the very real effects of climate change now becoming clearer to us with each passing year, not to mention the more poignant effects on human health by breathing polluted air and drinking fracked water, fossil now requires a relook.

It’s not just climate and individual health concerns that are driving the discussion, health care systems around the world are now realizing that a good portion of disease and mortality are directly relatable to the environment. In major industrialized nations, billions of dollars in health care dollars are spent to repair the damage to people’s health from fossil fuel emissions. It’s not a few billion ‘here and there’ it may be as high as 1/3rd of all health care spending in the world’s most industrialized nations.

The cost of fossil is becoming a very large number for even the richest countries

  • Climate: For each 1 degree of climate increase the world will spend 1 trillion dollars to counter drought, sea level rise, abnormal storm activity and land remediation.
  • Health: Our sophisticated health care systems can now argue with statistical proof that fossil fuel burning contributes to human mortality and disease in a much more precise manner than in decades past.
  • Costs: $600 billion dollars in subsides is a lot for the world’s nations to bear. And that number continues to grow each year as all of the ‘easy oil’ and ‘easy gas’ is already tapped and locations with special extraction methods must be employed.

From the G20 Energy Sustainability Working Group 2014, Co-chair’s Report

Inefficient fossil fuel subsidies

G20 members reported to G20 finance ministers in September on their progress towards meeting the G20 commitment, initially made at the 2009 Pittsburgh summit and reaffirmed at subsequent summits, to “ rationalize and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption over the medium term ”. The ESWG benefitted from updates on the preparations for the first round of voluntary peer reviews involving the United States and China. A second round of voluntary peer reviews involving other G20 countries is expected to commence in mid – 2015. Germany has announced it will participate in the second round.

In response to a request from leaders at the 2013 Saint Petersburg summit, the ESWG tasked the World Bank Group, in consultation with other relevant international organisations, to prepare a report on transitional policies to assist the poor while phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption. The World Bank Group provided regular updates to the ESWG through the year and the final report was delivered to finance ministers in September. — Read the full report here.

It looks like ‘business as usual’ is headed for change in the energy industry

Only fossil fuel superpowers Australia (coal), Canada (coal, oil, tar-sands petroleum, fracked gas and conventional gas, deepsea oil extraction), and Saudi Arabia (oil), alone out of the G20 did not see fit to endorse the Energy Sustainability Working Group 2014 report.

No surprise there. However, the day is coming when the costs of not switching to clean energy will far exceed the costs of switching. If all energy subsidies were magically and instantly removed — that day would be today.

Large Scale Job Sharing Could Prevent a Host of Societal Ills


Truism: Whenever and wherever the unemployment rate is low anywhere in the world, drug abuse, crime, and homelessness drops.

Jobs prevent the depression that leads to drug abuse, crime, and eventually, homelessness.

Because corporations in North America prefer a high-ish unemployment rate (to guarantee they get the choicest and hungriest applicants, and to ensure a large pool of seasonal labour, and as a device that works to continuously dampen calls for a higher minimum wage) we have the follow-on problems of depression, leading to drug abuse in some cases, which eventually leads to crime and later, homelessness for many of the working poor.

Which results in higher costs to society and it’s the taxpayers who must cover those costs, one way or another

To solve this utterly predictable set of problems, all levels of government should be working with corporations to ensure that corporate needs are met — but without destroying the lives of many people who would frankly, rather be working!

When everyone matters, society works better.

Nordic countries ask; What societal problems?

Sweden has mandatory job sharing in those industries that can’t employ all of their workers. Except for retired people, students, those with chronic illness, or the very wealthy, everyone in the country works for *at least* 6 months of the year. Which neatly prevents such societal ills.

If you’ve ever visited Sweden, you’ll notice nobody lives in dumpsters there

Nordiske-flag Image courtesy of Hansjorn
Nordic flags. Image courtesy of Hansjorn. From left; Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark.

Some industries in Sweden can’t use all of their available workers, so if you’re a worker in that particular industry it simply means that you’re ‘on work’ for 6 months and you’re ‘off work’ for 6 months of the year.

The ‘alternate person’ steps in and does ‘your job’ for 6 months while you’re on mandatory time off. Both people get Unemployment Insurance (UI) from Day 1 of their respective layoff dates.

It’s not like layoffs in North America. It’s more like, “Your scheduled time ‘off work’ is coming up, Anders. So, have you arranged the dates with your temporary replacement? You have? Thank you.”

In Sweden, you ‘own’ your job, you’re responsible for it, and you want to perform well for the company that has given you the responsibility for making sure that ‘your job’ is done properly

Also, even though you’re ‘off work’ for 6 months, you’re still expected to be available to fill that position whenever the alternate worker is ill, or can’t make it to work for any other reason. You like that a lot, because their UI system doesn’t penalize you for kindly making yourself available to the company AND you get to keep the wages you earned that day.

If you’re ‘on work’ for your 6 months and suddenly want a day ‘off work’ to go buy a house, propose to your partner or whatever, you just arrange it with your job sharing partner — and you’re covered. They come in and do your work for you. You inform the company merely out of courtesy that this will be happening. It’s ‘your job’ after all — not the company’s job.

So, let’s say that you’re off work for 6 months and ‘Sven’ (the person doing your job) has a skiing accident and needs 10 days off work to recover, you not only get your regular UI payment, you also get the normal wages for each day that you replaced Sven.

In this hypothetical job sharing scenario, the job of ‘Anders’ and ‘Sven’ is totally covered no matter what, 365 days of the year

Overtime wages? Unknown in Sweden. With one phone call the company simply adds another already trained worker to the project, and can keep them employed any number of days, or until project completion. Then, they send them back home until the company calls again to help with another project.

Everyone has a job, or is on UI for part of the year. Consequently, depression, drug abuse, crime, and homelessness are almost unknown in Sweden

Everyone has a job. Whether you are ‘off work’ for a time, or ‘on work’ for a time — you have a job, you have a place in society, you belong to a community. You may work 100 days per year, you may work 200 days per year, or any number of days between 100 to 365 days per year in Sweden. It depends how busy your particular industry is in that particular year.

The takeaway point is; If you live in Sweden — you’re a worker, you’re a valued person, you’re part of Sweden’s ongoing success, you belong.

When everyone matters — corporations work better, society works better, and the UN scores your country highly on the UN Happiness Index

Corporations like this employment policy, because more employees than they can afford to keep employed year ’round ‘own’ their particular position and over the course of a year, both workers communicate often, to make certain that every single working day of the year is ‘covered’ for the company.

The company doesn’t care which of the two workers are onsite on any given day, because both are eminently qualified and both feel that they ‘own the job’ and are responsible for it. Which is much better for the corporation when compared to only one person owning that job.

What happens in a Swedish company when an employee has time off due to illness, mandatory maternity leave, vacation times, or car trouble?

Nothing. The alternate worker is likely already on the premises doing the job. Utter, boring, Swedish efficiency! Also known as the Nordic Model — a fascinating mix of social and economic policies which has shown steady, predictable results, going on four decades.

The company knows that every work day of the year, each position in the company will be filled by the regular worker or the alternate worker — no matter what!

The inequality in North America is stunning. And there’s no good excuse for it. It’s merely a lack of leadership. Governments are kowtowing to uninspired, faceless, and unaccountable corporations that only care about the bottom line.

But hey, don’t blame the corporations! They’re in business to make a buck — not to solve social problems — that’s the government’s job.

But when the corporations are the ones causing the social problems via their policy of keeping workers hungry for work through a policy of high unemployment, union-busting, threats to export jobs to Asia, downsizing threats and more — that’s when we need to look at a better model.

And in the case of Sweden and the other Nordic countries, a much better model already exists — not just for society, but one that works better for corporations as well.

IPCC says emissions must fall to zero by 2100

IPCC PRESS RELEASE — 2 November 2014

Concluding installment of the Fifth Assessment Report:
Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, but options exist to limit its effects

COPENHAGEN, Nov 2, 2014 — Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed on all continents.

If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. However, options are available to adapt to climate change and implementing stringent mitigation activities can ensure that the impacts of climate change remain within a manageable range, creating a brighter and more sustainable future.

These are among the key findings of the Synthesis Report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Sunday.

The Synthesis Report distils and integrates the findings of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report produced by over 800 scientists and released over the past 13 months – the most comprehensive assessment of climate change ever undertaken.

R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC

“We have the means to limit climate change,” said R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC. “The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change.”

The Synthesis Report confirms that climate change is being registered around the world and warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Since the 1950s many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.

Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I

“Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years,” said Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

The report expresses with greater certainty than in previous assessments the fact that emissions of greenhouse gases and other anthropogenic drivers have been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20thcentury.

The impacts of climate change have already been felt in recent decades on all continents and across the oceans. The more human activity disrupts the climate, the greater the risks. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of widespread and profound impacts affecting all levels of society and the natural world, the report finds.

The Synthesis Report makes a clear case that many risks constitute particular challenges for the least developed countries and vulnerable communities, given their limited ability to cope. People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change.

R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC

“Indeed, limiting the effects of climate change raise issues of equity, justice, and fairness and is necessary to achieve sustainable development and poverty eradication. Many of those most vulnerable to climate change have contributed and contribute little to greenhouse gas emissions,” Pachauri said.“ Addressing climate change will not be possible if individual agents advance their own interests independently; it can only be achieved through cooperative responses, including international cooperation.”

Vicente Barros, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II

“Adaptation can play a key role in decreasing these risks,” said Vicente Barros, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II. “Adaptation is so important because it can be integrated with the pursuit of development, and can help prepare for the risks to which we are already committed by past emissions and existing infrastructure.”

But adaptation alone is not enough. Substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are at the core of limiting the risks of climate change. And since mitigation reduces the rate as well as the magnitude of warming, it also increases the time available for adaptation to a particular level of climate change, potentially by several decades. There are multiple mitigation pathways to achieve the substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades necessary to limit, with a greater than 66% chance, the warming to 2ºC – the goal set by governments.

However, delaying additional mitigation to 2030 will substantially increase the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges associated with limiting the warming over the 21st century to below 2ºC relative to pre-industrial levels, the report finds.

Youba Sokona, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III

“It is technically feasible to transition to a low-carbon economy,” said Youba Sokona, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. “But what is lacking are appropriate policies and institutions. The longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost to adapt and mitigate climate change.”

The Synthesis Report finds that mitigation cost estimates vary, but that global economic growth would not be strongly affected. In business-as-usual scenarios, consumption–a proxy for economic growth–grows by 1.6 to 3 percent per year over the 21st century. Ambitious mitigation would reduce this by about 0.06 percentage points.

“Compared to the imminent risk of irreversible climate change impacts, the risks of mitigation are manageable,” said Sokona. These economic estimates of mitigation costs do not account for the benefits of reduced climate change, nor do they account for the numerous co-benefits associated with human health, livelihoods, and development.

R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC

“The scientific case for prioritizing action on climate change is clearer than ever,” Pachauri said.“ We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within 2ºC of warming closes. To keep a good chance of staying below 2ºC, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100. We have that opportunity, and the choice is in our hands.”

Comprehensive assessment

The Synthesis Report, written under the leadership of IPCC Chair R.K. Pachauri, forms the capstone of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. The first three volumes, based on outlines approved by the IPCC’s 195 member governments in 2009, were released over the past fourteen months:

  • The Physical Science Basis in September 2013
  • Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, in March 2014
  • Mitigation of Climate Change in April 2014

IPCC reports draw on the many years of work by the scientific community investigating climate change. More than 830 coordinating lead authors, lead authors and review editors from over 80 countries and covering a range of scientific, technical and socio-economic views and expertise, produced the three working group contributions, supported by over 1000 contributing authors and drawing on the insights of over 2,000 expert reviewers in a process of repeated review and revision.

The authors assessed more than 30,000 scientific papers to develop the Fifth Assessment Report. About 60 authors and editors drawn from the IPCC Bureau and from Working Group author teams have been involved in the writing of the Synthesis Report. Their work was made possible by the contributions and dedication of the Synthesis Report Technical Support Unit.

R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC

“I would like to thank the hundreds of experts from the world’s scientific community who have given freely of their time and expertise to produce the most comprehensive assessment of climate change yet undertaken,” said Pachauri. “I hope this report will serve the needs of the world’s governments and provide the scientific basis to negotiators as they work towards a new global climate agreement.”

For further information about the IPCC, including links to its reports, go to: www.ipcc.ch

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Natural Gas, Fuel of the Future or Methane Menace?

by John Brian Shannon
Originally published at johnbrianshannon.com

While Natural Gas has been touted as the ‘bridge fuel towards a clean energy future‘ three major drawbacks have caused concern in recent months. The first is, of course, the negatives surrounding natural gas fracking which has been well covered by the media and I’m not going to repeat all that has been said on that account.

Rather, I will concentrate of the largely unreported issues of massive methane leaks escaping natural gas well heads, called ‘fugitive emissions’ and the practice of ‘flaring’ at natural gas wells.

Over a 100-year timeframe, methane is about 35 times as potent as a climate change-driving greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and over 20 years, it’s 84 times more potent.

Natural gas drilling could emit up to 1,000 times the methane previously thought, possibly significantly increasing the greenhouse gas footprint of the production of natural gas, the study shows. — Climate Central

There’s no doubt that natural gas has the capacity to be a cleaner fuel than coal and the various fuels that can be obtained from crude oil such as gasoline and diesel. But it isn’t.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is two-fold. Problem number one is methane leakage at natural gas wells, and problem number two is the ongoing practice of natural gas flaring at well heads, distribution centres and gas processing facilities.

Methane emissions from improperly sealed natural gas wellheads, combined with natural gas flaring near well heads, dramatically lowers the advantage of ‘clean’ natural gas as compared to ‘dirty’ coal and crude oil.

Natural gas as a means to produce electricity is being hailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the fuel that can act as a “bridge” between carbon-heavy coal and zero-carbon renewables, helping to reduce humans’ impact on the climate. 

The idea is that burning natural gas involves fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal. The IPCC in its Working Group III report says natural gas as a bridge fuel will only be effective if few gases escape into the atmosphere during natural gas production and distribution. —

Natural gas has the potential to be 1 million times cleaner than coal or crude oil based fuels if gas industry best practices are employed. But the present situation is so bad that (low carbon) natural gas airborne emissions are almost on par with (high carbon) coal and crude oil airborne emissions — once you factor everything into the equation.

A typical natural gas drilling rig. Credit: EPA

Why not properly seal the well heads?

Cost. Many gas drilling and extraction companies would like to hermetically seal their well heads to lower the death and injury rates of their workers due to raw gas exposure, to enhance overall gas recovery, decrease the waste of an incredibly useful fuel — and to lower emission levels thereby enhancing the reputation of gas as a 21st-century clean energy solution.

The reason companies won’t spend the extra ($100,000 on average) per well head (to fully encase the pipe in concrete slurry) is that shareholders don’t want lowered dividends. Nor do companies want to become less competitive as compared to the ones that don’t seal their well heads. To put this in some kind of perspective within the gas industry, some gas drilling/extraction operators have hundreds of well heads, while others only have tens of well heads.

At the end of it all, it turns out that improperly sealed natural gas wells and natural gas flaring are negating almost all of the benefits of super clean, natural gas — as compared to coal and crude oil sourced fuels.

Feel free to facepalm now.

Why not stop flaring at natural gas well heads?

Every natural gas well head must deal with pressure variables and with the normally-occurring contaminants found in natural gas. This is done onsite in a process known as flaring which is an incredibly toxic way of dealing with the problem of temporary pressure spikes and natural gas contaminants.

Flares burn off excess methane at an oil and gas field. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Contaminants in raw natural gas

Raw natural gas typically consists primarily of methane (CH4), the shortest and lightest hydrocarbon molecule. It also contains varying amounts of:

The raw natural gas must be purified to meet the quality standards specified by the major pipeline transmission and distribution companies. Those quality standards vary from pipeline to pipeline and are usually a function of a pipeline system’s design and the markets that it serves. In general, the standards specify that the natural gas:

  • Be within a specific range of heating value (caloric value). For example, in the United States, it should be about 1035 ± 5% BTU per cubic foot of gas at 1 atmosphere and 60°F (41 MJ ± 5% per cubic metre of gas at 1 atmosphere and 15.6°C).
  • Be delivered at or above a specified hydrocarbon dew point temperature (below which some of the hydrocarbons in the gas might condense at pipeline pressure forming liquid slugs that could damage the pipeline).
  • Dew-point adjustment serves the reduction of the concentration of water and heavy hydrocarbons in natural gas to such an extent that no condensation occurs during the ensuing transport in the pipelines
  • Be free of particulate solids and liquid water to prevent erosion, corrosion or other damage to the pipeline.
  • Be dehydrated of water vapor sufficiently to prevent the formation of methane hydrates within the gas processing plant or subsequently within the sales gas transmission pipeline. A typical water content specification in the U.S. is that gas must contain no more than seven pounds of water per million standard cubic feet (MMSCF) of gas.
  • Contain no more than trace amounts of components such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, mercaptans, and nitrogen. The most common specification for hydrogen sulfide content is 0.25 grain H2S per 100 cubic feet of gas, or approximately 4 ppm. Specifications for CO2 typically limit the content to no more than two or three percent.Maintain mercury at less than detectable limits (approximately 0.001 ppb by volume) primarily to avoid damaging equipment in the gas processing plant or the pipeline transmission system from mercury amalgamation and embrittlement of aluminum and other metals — (from Wikipedia)

All of these contaminants are burned off during flaring. The problem is that it is a very incomplete burning cycle, one that is millions of times dirtier than the exhaust that exits your car tailpipe. Indeed historically, there have been many cases where people — or even large numbers of cattle or other livestock — living downwind of flaring stacks have died from breathing the partially burned gas.

Legislation is the obvious solution, but how?

If one state legislates against fugitive emissions from well heads and against the practice of natural gas flaring — all of the gas wells in that state will simply be capped and all gas-related economic and energy activity will cease within that state. That’s how competitive the gas industry is.

In North America for example, if the United States legislates against fugitive emissions and natural gas flaring, the flight of capital and natural gas companies to Canada would result in a huge economic boom for Canada and a dramatic loss for the United States. The reverse is also true.

The Only Solution is a Continental Solution

Therefore, there can only be one solution to the problem — and that is a continental solution to fugitive emissions and to natural gas flaring — whether this is done under the auspices of a Free Trade Agreement or as a standalone convention, it is high-time for such legislation to be passed.

It doesn’t need to be a policy masterpiece nor does it need to be technically perfect. It needs to stipulate one uniform standard that applies to all natural gas drilling/extraction/refining and transportation systems.

Above all else, it needs to be done. Now.