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New Shale Study Refutes Cornell: Shale Gas Better Than Coal

Marcellus gas has less impact on global warming than coal, according to a recent study by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University.

The peer-reviewed study published Aug. 5 in “Environmental Research Letters” appears to be a direct refutation of an April study from researchers Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell University that indicated that shale gas was worse for global warming than coal.

The Cornell study had a number of faults — acknowledged by its authors — including sketchy data that did not directly apply to Marcellus drilling operations.

The Carnegie Mellon study looks specifically at Marcellus and the “life cycle greenhouse gas emmissions” associated with its production and consumption.

Marcellus gas is essentially no different than conventional natural gas, the study found, and 20-50 percent cleaner than coal for producing electricity.

“Marcellus shale gas emits 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than any U.S. coal-fired plant,” said study co-author Chris Hendrickson. “We favor extraction of Marcellus shale natural gas as long as the extraction is managed to minimize adverse economic, environmental and social impacts.”

Former DEP Secretary John Hanger lauded the new study on his blog, saying it “debunks and decimates professor Howarth’s hit piece study that the NYT gas reporter and other media gave so much attention.”

“By contrast,” Hanger said, “the CMU study has received very little press attention so the result remains that many people think Howarth is the final word on this important matter.”

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The Media, The CMU Study, & The Marcellus

John Hanger’s Fact of the Day, 18 August 2011

In reaction to my posting yesterday about the CMU life cycle gas study hiding in plain sight since August 5th, when it was published, Andy Leahy says in the Comment section:

“Nice scoop, John. Remarkable to me, the delayed, low-key rollout on the CMU paper, compared to the media tsunami which carried the Cornell paper.  Are the anti-drillers more polished in the PR department?”

This is a meaty, great comment in a few words.

The Howarth/Cornell study did get a media tsunami response, and Cornell said at one point no study in the history of that great university had ever generated more media coverage.

Why?  Impressive credentials go a long way.  And even more important is the message. Professor Howarth had credentials and had a shocking message, a bad news message, a message that built on the narrative constructed by the NYT gas reporter and Gasland that shale drilling or “fracking” is the vey worst environmental threat.  Howarth said that gas is as dirty or possibly dirtier than coal (he was talking about just one pollutant–carbon–but that got lost too).  

Bad, shocking, outrageous sells.  Good news rarely does.  Why? Readers and listeners respond to the outrageous.  No matter if it is false or wrong.  Smears work. It is the marketplace in which reporters work. 

Add the reality of some real bias against the gas industry in a few reporters (the NYT gas reporter is the most prominent example) to Howarth’s impressive credentials and the shocking but false message that gas is dirtier than coal creates the media tsunami that Andy mentions.

Howarth is a member of the academy from a great university. One had to be an expert in the field to say that this struting academic emperor wore no clothes and most of the coverage had little to warn the reader that the study was junk.  And the body of the piece is never as powerful as the headline or the lead and the lead was some version of gas is as dirty as coal. 

Many in the media also treated  Howarth as an objective researcher doing disinterested scientific research.  He is an anti-fracking activist who wears anti-fracking pins and so on. He wants in particular to keep drilling out of his home area and all that is perfectly fine but his agenda was not made clear.   He is doing work and using the credibility of his employer to create weapons for his cause which is to ban shale gas hydraulic fracturing.

And then there is the careful work of the 6 CMU researchers that hides in plain view for 12 days before I did a posting.  Why? 

In part, the message confirmed that coal is much dirtier than gas. Not an outrageous, shocking conclusion.  The researchers were not adding another allegation to the indictment against gas drilling so the NYT gas reporter and the narrative he has constructed was not served by this piece.  

Unlike the Duke University researchers that did a major roll out of the Duke gas migration study, CMU and the researchers apparently did little of the normal press work needed to gain media attention.  You cannot blame the media for not covering something if there is no reason for them to know about it.

But to answer the question posed by Andy Leahy, part of the explanation is also that those fighting gas drilling are more effective than the industry in messaging.  

My concern is not to score the fight like a boxing match but to try and make sure the discussion focuses on the real issues like a reasonable tax, gas migration and air emissions, while not falling prey to nonsense like the Howarth study

Thank you to the 6 researchers at CMU.  Hopefully as many people will learn about their careful research as heard about Howarth’s junk. Reporting is a tough, vital job. Great reporters are invaluable members of society. Truth depends on them and their work