Ryan Landvater / Sun File Photo

Pictured above is the Snyder Road Solar Farm, Cornell’s first large-scale solar initiative. This is one step in Cornell’s plans for a low carbon future.

November 12, 2016

Professor Criticizes Shale Gas, Advises Renewable Resources as Means to Carbon Neutrality

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Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology, stressed the importance of a fossil fuel free future, promoting the use of renewable energy sources to replace shale gas at a lecture Friday.

Critiquing the popular switch to shale gas — a natural gas extracted from shale — in order to reduce carbon footprint, Howarth said using shale gas “as a bridge fuel is wrong.”

“It’s a disastrous idea,” he said. “But it’s not because the argument about carbon dioxide is wrong. It’s because natural gas is mostly methane.”

Howarth explained that methane is 30 percent more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, making it a significant contributor to global warming and a much more dangerous gas.

“There has been a huge spike in methane emissions over the last decade and the United States is a major contributor to it due to the methane emissions coming from the shale gas revolution,” he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has published data over the years that make it seem as if methane emissions from shale are negligible, according to Howarth. However, Howarth claimed that the methane was evaluated over a 100-year time period, which does not produce an accurate assessment of shale gas contributions, because shale gas was only made commercially available a decade ago. He advocated looking at a 20-year time period instead.

“The analytical instrument that the EPA approves to study methane emissions, the only one that they approve to study methane emissions, has probably been misused,” he said. “If not used correctly, the high methane detector never kicks in.”

After reiterating the disastrous nature of shale gas as a bridge fuel, Howarth proposed other renewable energy sources to achieve carbon neutrality, such as offshore wind energy, rooftop solar energy and geothermal energy.

Howarth also introduced a proposal he formulated with Marc Jacobson, a Stanford University engineer and Anthony Ingraffea, from Cornell University, to make New York fossil fuel free by 2030. He added that he hopes the success of this proposal will set a precedent for the entire nation.

Howarth added that it is time for Cornell to “reset the goalposts.” He said the University switched to shale gas in 2008 but has started transferring to renewable energy sources like geothermal and wind energy now that shale has been recognized as being potentially more harmful than fossil fuels.

The lecture, “The Folly of Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel and the Path for a Fossil Fuel-free Future,” was part of the seminar series, “Climate, Energy, and National Security.”