Greenpeace Tries (and Fails) to Minimize Climate Benefits of Shale Gas

Yesterday, Greenpeace released another report attempting to minimize the role of shale gas in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. According to Greenpeace – which opposes the use of fracking – renewable energy technologies like wind and solar were responsible for more emissions reductions than the increased use of natural gas since 2006.

Of course, this erroneous claim is not a new one. In 2012, the same “experts” at Greenpeace released a similar report attempting to show that the International Energy Agency, as well as a team of Harvard and MIT researchers, had overestimated the impact of the shale revolution on emissions reductions. Unsurprisingly, the IEA World Energy Outlook team and the leading scholars at those prestigious universities saw little need to revise their findings—or even address the criticism that came for a non-peer reviewed, clearly un-objective source.

But the activists at Greenpeace are undeterred by scientific consensus. Arguing against a headwind of facts, Greenpeace would nonetheless have us believe that it is more reliable than the IEA team that put together the World Energy Outlook — comprised of 37 interdisciplinary experts that consult with member governments, international organizations and energy companies all around the world.

Here is what such a team of experts concluded in a 2013 World Energy Outlook special report:

“US emissions declined by 200 Mt, mostly due to low gas prices brought about by shale gas development that triggered a switch from coal to gas in the power sector.” (emphasis added)

Clearly, IEA was not impressed by Greenpeace’s attempts to rewrite history.

The IEA is not the only agency that has come to this conclusion, either. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has compared, side by side, the electric power sector carbon savings since 2005 from using less-carbon intensive fuels (i.e. natural gas) and using non-carbon energy sources (renewables). In no single year have the emissions savings from renewables been greater than savings from switching to natural gas. And the aggregate figures are no less blunt: the total carbon savings between 2006 and 2013 from less carbon intensive fuels, such as natural gas, is 66% higher than the savings from renewables.


Still, Greenpeace has chosen to publicly claim otherwise, arguing that the emissions savings from the shift to renewables is 30% higher than the reduction attributable to using more natural gas. Bizarrely, they claim to get their data from the EIA, which says the complete opposite!

Digging a little deeper, we can see why Greenpeace is coming to a different conclusion. There are two key components:

The first one is methodology. As the authors of the Greenpeace report mention “different methodologies yield different results.” No kidding!

So, let’s take a quick a look at their analysis. Greenpeace calculated the overall — not yearly — difference in coal, gas, and renewables-based electricity generation between 2006 and 2013. They multiplied such difference by the amount of CO2 that each energy source produces. And then they compared it to the emissions that coal would produce to generate the same amount of electricity. No yearly divisions, no demand analyses, no estimated baseline scenarios.

By way of contrast, consider how agencies like the EIA estimate carbon savings. First, they calculate the carbon intensity of power generation in a single year – both the aggregate emissions and the data from each energy source. Next, they estimate the amount of emissions that would take place to completely satisfice the power demand under a fixed carbon intensity scenario for the subsequent years—what’s called a baseline scenario. Then, they compute the differences with the actual emissions under the actual carbon intensity for each year. Finally, they cross-analyze the results by energy source for each year.

It doesn’t take an expert to recognize which methodology is more robust. So why would Greenpeace argue against the experts?

The answer to this question leads us to the second component to explain how Greenpeace could yield completely different results from the organization from which they supposedly pulled their data: radical ideology.

It’s hard to believe that the leadership at Greenpeace does not see through the obvious limitations of an analysis as the flimsy one presented this week—especially when compared to the studies they are actually criticizing. Until, of course, you realize that Greenpeace opposes hydraulic fracturing as a matter of organizational policy. No “evidence” or “data” will ever change that. Additionally, if the data suggest benefits from shale gas, then it’s part of Greenpeace’s missions to try to spin the facts to suit its predetermined narrative. Hardly scientific, but also hardly surprising.

Also unsurprising is that many in the environmental community actually disagree with Greenpeace. The Breakthrough Institute, for example, whose leaders have been recognized by Time Magazine as “heroes of the environment”, has declared:

“Not since European deployment of nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s has any country achieved such rapid decarbonization as the United States has in the last five years thanks to cheap natural gas.” (emphasis added)

Even more damning is that the former executive director of Greenpeace in the U.K., Stephen Tindale, is now encouraging his fellow environmentalists to embrace shale gas—owing to its capacity to reduce GHG emissions. In fact, in a blog post entitled “The climate case for shale gas,” Tindale wrote unequivocally that “climate campaigners should support fracking for shale gas.”

Unfortunately, Greenpeace is not budging. No matter how many organizations, experts, leaders, and even environmentalists embrace natural gas, it will stubbornly hang on to its ideologically-driven, analytically-challenged “math” to try to support its fringe theories.

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