I’m pretty amazed that no one looked into the greenhouse gas impact of fracking until now. One of the big rationales for fracking, which is already controversial due to reports of damage to aquifers, is that it was abundant in North America and also produces comparatively little in the way of carbon emissions.
The problem, per a study soon to be published by Cornell University, is fracking results in the release of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, apparently enough to undercut the claims that it is relatively “clean”. From NewsWise:
Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal, according to a Cornell study published in the May issue of the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters.
While natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning fuel that produces less carbon dioxide than coal, ecologist Robert Howarth warns that we should be more concerned about methane leaking into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing.
Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide, Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well – up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.
“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”….
We are highlighting unconventional gas because it is a contemporary problem for us in upstate New York, and because there is a big difference between developing gas from an unconventional well and a conventional well, for the mere reason that unconventional wells are bigger,” Ingraffea said.
He noted that the hydraulic fracturing process lends itself to more leakage because it takes more time to drill the well, requires more venting and produces more flowback waste, he said.
“We do not intend for you to accept what we’ve reported on today as the definitive scientific study in regards to this question. It’s clearly not,” he added. “What we’re hoping to do with this study is to stimulate the science that should have been done before. In my opinion, corporate business plans superseded national energy strategy.”
From The Hill (hat tip reader Thomas R):
In essence, the Cornell study argues that methane emissions from these shale gas projects mean that shale gas ultimately brings climate consequences comparable to coal over a century, and worse than coal over two decades….
Obama has touted the potential of natural gas for use in vehicles, in addition to its role in power generation (natural gas currently produces around a fifth of U.S. electricity).
His proposed “clean energy standard,” which would require utilities to greatly expand the supply of power from low-carbon sources, includes partial credit for natural gas.
More broadly, many gas supporters see domestic reserves as a “bridge” fuel while alternative energy sources are brought into wider use.
Howarth’s study questions this idea.
“The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” the study states.
The report in the New York Times on the same study is understated even if factually accurate (note the title says “studies” but the second study depends on the Cornell research for some of its key data):
Natural gas, with its reputation as a linchpin in the effort to wean the nation off dirtier fossil fuels and reduce global warming, may not be as clean over all as its proponents say.
Even as natural gas production in the United States increases and Washington gives it a warm embrace as a crucial component of America’s energy future, two coming studies try to poke holes in the clean-and-green reputation of natural gas. They suggest that the rush to develop the nation’s vast, unconventional sources of natural gas is logistically impractical and likely to do more to heat up the planet than mining and burning coal.
The problem, the studies suggest, is that planet-warming methane, the chief component of natural gas, is escaping into the atmosphere in far larger quantities than previously thought, with as much as 7.9 percent of it puffing out from shale gas wells, intentionally vented or flared, or seeping from loose pipe fittings along gas distribution lines. This offsets natural gas’s most important advantage as an energy source: it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels and releases lower carbon dioxide emissions.
Obama had been planning to construct 9 to 12 nuclear reactors in addition to emphasizing shale gas as ways to reduce carbon emissions. Fukushima is going to make it harder if not impossible to get nuclear plants built, and fracking is looking less attractive the more scrutiny it gets. Looks like it’s time to develop Plan B.