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Roughnecks working hydraulic fracturing operation.

Tapping natural gas in shale formations may release more methane than conventional sources, making it as environmental dangerous as coal.

The Hobson's Choice of Shale Gas

Natural gas from shale formations may be as polluting as coal, write Kurt Cobb.

By Kurt Cobb

Reprinted from the January 23, 2012 edition of ASPO-USA's Peak Oil Review.

Which of the following can we count on to act as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy economy?

The correct answer is: D. None of the above.

Mark Twain is reported to have said: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." What most environmentalists think they know for sure is that oil, coal and natural gas are all abundant—so abundant, in fact, that many environmentalists believe they are forced to make a Hobson's choice of natural gas as a so-called "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future.

Though natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than coal or oil when it is burned, it still contributes mightily to climate change. In fact, according to research by a Cornell University team, natural gas from shale, which will make up an increasing share of U.S. gas supplies, is worse than conventionally produced gas which is now declining. Because shale gas wells are drilled in a way that releases considerable volumes of unburned methane into the atmosphere, shale gas is probably also worse than coal.

Methane is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and it leaks into the environment over the lifecycle of natural gas from drilling through delivery. In addition, hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the country's vast shale formations pollutes the air and surface waters surrounding drill sites and threatens the groundwater because the process uses toxic chemicals.

It turns out, however, that what most environmentalists know about the future supply of natural gas and other fossil fuels is based more on industry hype than on actual data. And, that means that they are missing a key argument in their discussions about renewable energy, one that could be used to persuade those less concerned about pollution and climate change and more concerned about energy security: There is increasing evidence that no fossil fuel will continue to see its rate of production climb significantly in the decades ahead and so none of them is a viable "bridge fuel," not natural gas, not oil, not coal. This means that global society must leap over fossil fuels and move directly to renewables as quickly as possible. In advanced economies this leap must be combined with a program of radical reductions in energy use, reductions which are achievable using known technologies and practices.

Okay, perhaps you are wondering about the data. Let's discuss each fossil fuel separately:

Oil

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