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Why We Need to Help the Chinese Frack

Adam Dean | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Surging energy poses a great opportunity to human well-being, particularly that of the developing world. But surging energy also poses a threat to our climate. The burning of fossil fuels has led to a rise in carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, to a level not seen in the prior 20 million years, and realistic projections show that a rapid increase is likely to continue. Fear of the expected global warming is leading to desperate and perhaps even panic-triggered action, including the delay of the Keystone pipeline in the U.S., cancellation of coal to oil conversion projects and the stall of shale gas development in Europe.

The problem with panic is that it often triggers wasteful and ineffective measures. People turn from analysis toward fundamentalism that substitutes ideology for careful analysis. But the problem is big enough that it is important to step back and try to be objective, and to look at the science and the numbers, to operate in a problem-solving rather than ideologically driven mode. When I try to do this, I am drawn to two key facts that are extraordinarily important, and yet frequently ignored in the rush to action:

—Most of the future warming will be due to emissions from China and the rest of the developing world, not from the U.S. Western-based approaches that will not trigger similar action in the developing world will not solve the problem.

—Simple-minded classifications of energy sources provide fast but not good answers. Half of the solution to global warming mitigation may indeed come from an energy source that is renewable, sustainable, green, clean and local: energy conservation. But half of the solution may lie with an energy source that matches none of these definitions: natural gas.

(Read more:The Globalization of Energy Demand)

Let's begin with a look at the emissions of the developing world. Prior to 2006, the leading carbon dioxide country was the United States, but the rapid economic growth of China changed that. Look at the chart. China's current emissions are already (as of 2013) double those of the U.S. and growing; carbon dioxide from the United States is declining. If the trends continue (and based on planned coal plants in China, they probably will) then the U.S. and Europe will soon become virtually irrelevant, from a greenhouse gas perspective. At current growth rates, China will surpass the U.S. even in emissions per person by 2022, and that's less than a decade away. If the U.S. were to disappear tomorrow, with emissions dropping to zero, then the annual global emissions would be back to their current level in four years just from the growth of China alone.

Please don't interpret these facts in an attempt to deny U.S. blame for past carbon dioxide. If you wish, place all past and future blame on the United States, or even on me personally. Blame isn't the issue. The important question is what can we do that has a realistic chance of working? If you ignore China, you are not really trying to stop global warming, but only trying to make sure that the West will not be ultimately responsible for the additional rise.

The fact that the expected emissions will come from poor nations requires that solutions not only be inexpensive but that they must be profitable. China has many problems to address other than global warming, including widespread poverty, malnutrition, hunger, inadequate health service and limited opportunity; any Chinese leader is likely to spend available resources on these urgent problems, not on the future danger of global warming.

Fortunately the most important measure that China can take, energy conservation, is highly profitable. A kilowatt-hour saved is a kilowatt-hour not paid for, and that can be thought of as a return on an investment. Energy conservation does not mean sacrifice, even perceived sacrifice such as putting on a sweater on a cold day rather than turning up the heat. Energy conservation can better be implemented with better insulation, by smart surfaces on buildings and autos that reflect sun in hot climates, by more efficient appliances, automobiles and light bulbs. Energy conservation means more efficient power plants and more efficient motors.

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All these yield remarkable return on investment, although individual consumers may not realize that is the case. It is far better to put any capital you have into improved insulation than it is to put it into a savings account or into the stock market. People hesitate when they hear that the payback time is three to five years; it sounds like a long time to "tie up" capital. But a five-year payback time is equivalent to a 20 percent yearly return, far better than any other safe investment.

Even if energy efficiency and conservation is a hard sell in the West, largely because of consumer confusion over the meaning of payback time, it is very popular in the technocrat-run government of China. That country's most recent five-year plan intends to reduce its greenhouse "intensity" by 4 percent per year. That means that if the energy growth is 10 percent, China's carbon dioxide growth will be "only" 6 percent. Nevertheless, this is an ambitious plan and we must help them succeed. Indeed, many organizations both private and public in the U.S. are working hard to help them do this.

Energy conservation in China is on track, and has the potential to be a big success. But there is another problem that, if not addressed, could be a global warming disaster. That is coal. Chinese coal use has continued to expand dramatically. They have been adding coal capacity at an enormous rate, with enough new coal plants to increase power by 50 gigawatts annually; that's the equivalent of adding seven completely new New York Cities every year.

Coal is the dirtiest fuel of them all. Most of the energy in coal comes from combining carbon with oxygen to make carbon dioxide. And coal plants are notoriously inefficient; even the most modern ones (supercritical combustion) produce electricity at only 43 percent efficiency. In contrast, modern natural gas combined cycle plants operate at 60 percent efficiency.

Natural gas has another benefit. Half of the energy produced comes from the hydrogen stored on the methane molecule, and this produces no carbon dioxide. (Even though the water produced is a greenhouse gas, it quickly disappears into oceans and rivers so it doesn't enhance global warming.) The net effect is that natural gas is two to three times better from a global warming point of view; it produces only one-third to one-half the greenhouse effect.

(Read more: The Rising Irony of the Beyond OPEC Era)

That's enormously important. Since most of the future global warming is going to come from coal, if we can substitute natural gas, we can slow that warming by a factor of two to three. That means that the warming will not take place in 30 to 50 years, but in 60 to 150 years.

Of course, a switch from coal to natural gas doesn't stop greenhouse warming; it only slows it. That is true, but this is a case where delay may be sufficient. The problem with renewables is that they are still expensive. China claims to have produced 7 gigawatts of solar last year, but they are referring to "peak power"—the power produced when the sun is directly overhead. If you average in evenings, nights, mornings and cloudy weather, the average power produced by their solar cells is less than 1 gigawatt. Compare that with the 50 gigawatts of coal they added last year! And the very low price of solar cells is somewhat artificial; the biggest Chinese solar cell company, Suntech Power, went bankrupt this year. Solar is exceedingly far away from being a major contributor to the energy surge. I believe it will and can catch up, but if we can give it longer (60 years versus 30) it has a much better chance of becoming practical in time to finally end the rise of the greenhouse effect.

China has huge supplies of natural gas, estimated to be 50% greater than those in the U.S., but they can only be extracted by "fracking," the controversial technique that injects high pressure fluids underground to fracture the shale rock that holds the gas. This approach results in large quantities of dirty flowback water that could pollute local land and streams. I believe this pollution can be handled by making fines sufficiently large that release of the water becomes unprofitable; the water can be used instead for additional fracking, disposed of deep underground or trucked away.

Potentially more worrisome is "fugitive methane"—methane that escapes, either during the drilling operation, in pipelines or in use. Methane is a greenhouse gas, 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Even if only 2 percent leaks, then it sounds as if the advantage over coal completely disappears.

That conclusion is not correct, when the numbers are done carefully. The first key fact is that atmospheric methane is rapidly destroyed by solar radiation. That means that the effective global warming potential is closer to 30 (compared to carbon dioxide) than it is to 80. Secondly, the factor of 80 (or now, 30) is not the proper one to use for fugitive methane. That's for a simple technical reason: 80 represents the global warming potential per pound, not molecule per molecule. When we compare the danger of one molecule of methane leaking, versus what would happen if it burned into one molecule of carbon dioxide, the global warming potential is reduced to 11. That's still bad, but not as bad as 80.

It is important to note that I am not saying anything controversial; these effects are all well-known to the experts in the field, even though they are often unknown to pundits and bloggers. When we include the higher efficiency of natural gas plants, we conclude that for such a plant to cause as much global warming as a coal plant, the fugitive (leaked) methane would have to be 14 percent. The most recent estimate of fugitive methane done by the Environmental Protection Agency is that 1.7 percent leaks; so fugitive methane should not be a problem. Nonetheless, it should be prevented from ever becoming a problem by strict and punitive fines.

China has another reason to reduce its coal—the horrid air pollution, much of which comes from coal plants, that is choking its citizens. Even those in the U.S. who are suspicious of the fracking technology must recognize the desperate need of the Chinese to cut back on coal use. Solar and wind are developing, but too slowly. Nuclear and hydro are potential alternatives, but also unpopular to many environmentalists. Natural gas can be distributed as rapidly as pipelines can be built, and that is faster than rail or roads for coal transport. The Chinese government would like to develop their natural gas as rapidly as possible, and it is in the interests of the U.S. and Europe to help them as best we can.

_ By Richard Muller (adapted from his book, "Energy for Future Presidents")

Muller is a physics professor at University of California at Berkeley and senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

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