The darkness behind fracking’s silver lining

By Richard Schiffman
June 25, 2013

A natural gas pipeline under construction near East Smithfield in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, Jan. 7, 2012. REUTERS/Les Stone

Climate change may have reached the point of no return last month.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere topped 400 parts per million on May 19, for the first time since the Pleistocene era, over 2.5 million years ago. President Barack Obama’s historic speech on climate change today highlights his growing focus on this issue for his second term.

Climate scientists have long regarded that 400 number as the symbolic threshold. One step beyond, and it would be virtually impossible to put the brake on human-generated climate change. The bad news escalated last week when the International Energy Agency reported that global emissions of carbon dioxide rose 1.4 percent in 2012, the largest annual increase on record.

The good news, by contrast, is that while CO2 emissions rise elsewhere, in the United States at least they have been going down, and are now at their lowest level in more than two decades. “Over the last four years,” Obama boasted in his State of Union address, “our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.”

True. The United States, however, has succeeded in lowering CO2 emissions because of the continuing natural gas boom from fracking. Lured by record low prices, about 150 U.S. coal-fired power plants have switched to natural gas in the last three years. Gas produces half the CO2 that coal does when burned, and almost none of the sooty particulates, which contribute to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

It’s been a good year for Big Energy. U.S. production of natural gas rose 4.9 percent in 2012, according to a new report from BP, contributing to the biggest single-year increase in petroleum (gas plus oil) production in American history. Fracking supporters say the boom in gas drilling will ensure that the United States is energy independent and energy secure in the decades to come.

Even some environmentalists view natural gas as “a bridge fuel” that can help ease our transition from high-carbon sources, like coal and oil, to the renewable energy of the future. But this argument remains contentious in the environmental community.

Though the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, is sympathetic to the benefits of fracking, others, like the Sierra Club, assert that, far from serving as a bridge to renewables, the glut of cheap gas is more likely to kill off alternative fuels. Fledgling technologies like wind and solar, they say, won’t be able to compete with bargain-basement gas prices.

Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate action group 350.org, says we must break our addiction to fossil fuels. “Natural gas,” McKibben says, “provides at best a kind of fad diet, where a dangerously overweight patient loses a few pounds and then their weight stabilizes. Instead, we need at this point a crash diet, difficult to do.” But necessary, McKibben insists.

Natural gas is, of course, a fossil fuel — if a relatively benign one. Benign when it is burned, that is. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4), a smog-forming greenhouse gas 70 times as potent as CO2 in the critical first decade after it enters the atmosphere. During fracking, most of the methane is captured, or burned off through flaring.

But some of the volatile gas — nobody knows exactly how much — escapes by venting into the air. If the venting rate is low, fracking is a net plus for the climate. But fracking is actually worse than burning coal if leakages are above 3.2 percent of the total output, according to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study.

Given the crucial importance of this question, it is odd that there is virtually no hard data from the gas companies. They are not required to measure methane loss from their wells. The Environmental Protection Agency in April lowered its own estimate of the problem, based on “tighter pollution controls instituted by the industry.” But the agency’s analysis — which depends on industry guesswork rather than independent field studies — has been widely criticized by environmentalists.

In recent years, few local monitoring studies have been done. One conducted jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado Boulder, in the Denver-Julesburg gas field, and another in the Uinta Basin of Utah, by a second team at those institutions, reported leakage rates of 4 percent and 9 percent of total production, respectively — numbers that don’t include subsequent losses in processing and transportation of the gas.

Natural gas leaks in urban areas are also gaining increasing attention. There has been an eye-opening 17 percent methane leak rate from oil and gas operations in the Los Angeles area, according to a paper by NOAA scientist Jeff Peischl, published in the May issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research. In addition to the gas escaping from wells in the region, Peischl found high leak rates in the city itself from aging gas mains and distribution systems.

Los Angeles’s leaky pipes may be typical of other cities, or not — we just don’t know. What we do know is that methane levels in the atmosphere, after briefly stabilizing from 1999 to 2006, have been rising. Perhaps not coincidentally, the upswing started just as the current boom in natural gas drilling was getting underway. If methane continues to increase at its current rate, Scientific American reports, within the next 20 years it will contribute a whopping 44 percent of the greenhouse gas load produced by the U.S.

Natural gas production isn’t the only way that methane gets into the air. After drilling, the next biggest anthropogenic source is cattle ranching. In the United States alone, domesticated cattle belch out 5.5 million metric tons of methane each year. Canadian scientists are even now working to breed a burp-free cow– no kidding! Rotting food in landfills also creates lots of methane.

And there are natural sources — everything from swamp gas to the thawing of the Arctic tundra, which is expected to escalate as temperatures rise. There are also vast reserves of frozen methane hydrates under the continental shelves of virtually every continent, which may start melting as ocean temperatures continue to rise.

But human activities produce 60 percent of the methane in the air, according to the EPA. The lion’s share of that comes from fossil fuel production. That’s where we need to start if we want to make a real impact on the methane problem, according to Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University.

Ingraffea, whose specialty is rock fracture mechanics, was contracted in the mid-1980s by the Department of Energy to conduct research that served as a basis for current shale fracking practices. But he morphed into an industry critic when he began looking into the “enormous environmental footprint” of the fracking technology that he had helped to develop.

Ingraffea joined forces with Cornell ecology professor Robert Howarth on a study published in 2011 that estimated far higher methane leak rates than the gas industry admits to — a study which has played a major role in sparking the current debate.

The gas industry-sponsored website Energy in Depth called the study “a pretty poor piece of work,” claiming it “has been fully debunked and discredited.” On the contrary, Ingraffea told me, the latest research from the field has only borne out their initial fears about the scope of the problem.

As for the P.R. effort to discredit them, “I’m energized by it,” Ingraffea told me. “I must be saying something important, or they wouldn’t bother paying attention to me… I’m an advocate, no question about it. Because it’s too damn important that we get this one right.”

Howarth and Ingraffea are due out shortly with a new methane emissions study, which will include measurements made in small aircraft flying over Pennsylvania’s fracking zone.

This is just one of a half-dozen projects now in the works, which will help establish scientific data about whether fracking is the boon that industry says it is — or our latest reckless human assault on the earth’s unstable climate system.

PHOTO (Insert A): A gas flare burns at a fracking site in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania Jan. 9, 2012. REUTERS/Les Stone

PHOTO (Insert B): A farmer dispenses feed to his herd in his cowshed in Seranvillers Forenville near Cambrai, northern France, Jan. 25, 2013. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

12 comments

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I don’t believe this. 200 years ago, the dominant animal in the wwestern part of what is now the US was the bison which was a methane producing animal. In more humid parts of the US, rotting vegetation certainly produced a fair amount of vegetation, just like landfills do today.

All of these studies are driven by mathematical modeling, which is a fancy way of multiplying by zero and adding the right answer.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive

so let me understand your comment…

“our atmosphere is ALL forgiving”; 200 years ago a world population under one billion…

last, pollution is a product of vast speculation and we are doing no wrong?

Thank you.

Posted by chapapet | Report as abusive

When one looks at the condition of infrastructure (roads, water, energy, solid waste management, and effluent ) that is concentrated within our largest metropolitan areas, there are significantly bigger issues facing this country than any methane produced by energy development.

Much of that core infrastructure is upwards of 100 years old–therefore you have collapsing roadways and bridges, sinkholes from corroded and leaking water systems, natural gas explosions (see San Bruno), dilapidated electrical system (see NY subways), increasing volumes of solid waste, and waste water management systems unable to handle the volume of prescription drugs in the system). I find it interesting that many of these studies, regarding pollution from energy development secure a significant amount of headlines, while those systems managed by local, state and federal government get a pass (or are not even mentioned). I trust the more people were killed in the San Bruno natural gas explosion than have been killed by methane in the atmosphere over the past ten or twenty years.

But it’s always easier to blame “big business” in the private sector (as in big oil, big box stores, big farming, …) and to overlook the benefits we all enjoy due to their efforts. Condemn and demonize if you will, but when there is not enough of (heat, electricity, gasoline, food) and it becomes a imposition or inconvenience for the normal citizen the response is to blame “big ____” without looking at the agenda the EPA and these other “saviors” (including our President) are promoting.

Sometimes I think we need a good six months of fuel shortages (see 1973 and 1979) to recalibrate our thinking. For those of you under 50 years old, you have no idea what I am talking about. So allow me to remind you… when you sit in line for two hours to get 10 gallons of fuel just so you can get to work, availability quickly supersedes your concerns about cost and the atmosphere. And, I won’t even discuss how you will get little Bobby to baseball practice or little Bambi to dance class. With the ongoing concentration of the population into metropolitan areas, the impact will be even worse than in the 1970′s.

California, for one, is on the path to energy shortages that wind and solar will not solve. Remember “No Nukes” when you have your rolling brown-outs; nor will it resolve the dollar premium they currently pay for gasoline. (But go ahead an invest $100 billion in a high speed train to nowhere and stop the expansion of the oil refinery in Richmond. It’s definitely your call.)

While they will demand more renewable sources, the NIMBY’s (not in my backyard) will surface enmasse to promote the concept PROVIDED no windmills are within their line of sight, or to protect the desert turtle in the middle of the Mojave. (See Ted Kennedy and the Cape Cod wind farm, for you folks on the east coast. Same mantra demanding more renewable energy, same response–but not here.)

You cannot have it both ways. There are trade-offs for everyone. Should you prefer to sterilize the environment, that’s great. But be prepared for shortages, higher prices, and the demands for government to “do something”. And, we all know what happens when government “does something”. (They make the problem worse!)

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Duh, duh, and duh again. Yet the gasoholics’ assault on our nation’s most precious and necessary resource — water, not gas — continues unabated. What the moribund U.S. environmental movement needs — and in particular the fractured and chronically outclassed anti-fracking movement — is an angrier soundtrack, not bogged down with musical baggage from old, hippy-dippy environmental campaigns. Here’s a new American anthem guaranteed to stir the soul of any red-blooded environmentalist, as well as lure a few emotionally sensitive people over from the dark side. Feel free to use it. Scream your anger!
http://biffthuringer.bandcamp.com/track/ to-america

Posted by hvchronic | Report as abusive

The problem with natural gas isn’t with fracking. The problem with energy isn’t natural gas nor is it the answer. The wanna be environmental movement should just get over these facts and center the discourse where it deserves to be and forget this red herring – it is a terrible distraction foisted upon us by the powers that be to misdirect our attention. My wife and kids really shouldn’t eat the fish out of the NYC watershed according NYS Fish and Game. Why? Because it is polluted by coal power, other industrial activities and waste.

The problems are many and we are trashing the planet on a vast scale. We have repeatedly proven that technology is our greatest resource and is the only answer – but only if we focus. Solar energy research will lead to impressive gains in the sun to electricity conversion efficiency for example, but there is so many other areas also deserving of investment. Chief among them is educating our children to find the solution to the problems they inherit from us. Lead and others will follow. Dictate and they will rebel.

Posted by DLNY | Report as abusive

While COindependent presents a rather reasonable argument based on the notion that we oftentimes take for granted the things that allow us to enjoy our current standard of living, I am afraid the rationale used is ultimately grounded in that frustration and not the truly important matter concerning the health of our planet. As populations boom, the (global) middle-class expands, and energy/resource demands skyrocket, we cannot expect to live in the manner we have grown accustomed to.

Imagine a person with excellent metabolism in his younger years. He is free to eat/drink/do pretty much whatever he wants with no outwardly observable consequence. Then his metabolism slows and suddenly all his vices come back to bite him in the ass. Missteps compound and now we can see the consequences of his actions previously masked earlier on. Should he want to stay healthy, he must work harder at it and can no longer live the way he once did. Not a perfect analogy, but somewhat appropriate.

Posted by voiceofreason42 | Report as abusive

@ voice Point acknowledged, but who is going to be the first person to stifle their aspirations relative to their standard of living? I agree that population growth is a key driver, but that has flattened in the developed countries while we have reduced our emissions per unit of production significantly.

It’s another issue in developing countries however. And without (population) growth, where do the jobs come from that currently support us? We cannot produce solely for our own consumption, and without consumption growth where is the demand that creates and supports jobs? Not everyone can be a nuclear engineer, as we need blue collar jobs in spite of our Presidents talking points.

There is a balance that can be achieved, but who decides the trade-offs? Government? Surely not. The capitalist system has proven to make the best decisions over the long term. That same system has rescued more people from poverty than any other economic model, and I am not convinced that those with aspirations of a better life are prepared to give up their shot at their lot and that of their children. Is that not what America is about–opportunity based on your motivation?

American are extremely responsible when it comes to the environment–the world follows us. We can create new industries and technologies that support multiple goals, but we quickly reach a saturation point where we need markets beyond our continent.

The issue is significantly more complex than that promoted by the environmentalists and those who demand less consumption. These same persons tend to preach their agenda (on a computer ultimately powered by coal or natural gas) from the air-conditioned skyscrapers on the coasts, promoting the “unadulterated” food shipped in from around the world (that used to be grown on farms where their house now sits), and drinking bottled water because they are dehydrated from riding to work on a $3000 Italian bicycle.

And surely, their are few people prepared to live-off-the-land as even the most committed hermit still relies on buyers and sellers to support their needs.

Let the markets determine how we respond. It will allow for failures and reward success. The oil and gas companies have a solid history of solving their own problems. But those preaching the evils of fraccing while at the same time turning up the heat on a cold day and driving your electric car, is hypocritical. There are far worse things than methane emissions in the atmosphere. Besides, Mother Nature has proven to be very resilient–even of her own transgressions.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

The “free market” will decide is no different than saying “god will decide”. There is no evidence a “free market” exists just like there is no evidence a “god” exists.

They are both ideas and it is a shame so many people bought into them without validating their legitimacy.

Are any of you scientists?

Posted by Obsilutely | Report as abusive

While Yaakovweeee is a luddite and chappapet gets it, COindependent is typical of the ‘business as usual’ crowd. He definitely has a beef with the greenies. Sorry, but stereotyping any group as badly as you tend to just sucks. His last 2 sentences (2nd post) are spoken like someone who really knows his science. NOT.
Hvchronic on the other hand understands that water is our most precious resource. As long as we can still breathe the air. Precisely. Don’t know about the whole soundtrack tangent. DLNY realizes technology is the key to ending outdated forms of energy generation. I know of revolutionary research that truly solve a number of our problems while generating very clean energy but while it may or not take off due to vested interests at least we know people like COindependent believe the magic of the market will save us while turning a blind eye to fracking fast and loose.

Posted by Mac20nine | Report as abusive

For a review of possible risks from fracking to the water supply, here is an article in Discover Magazine: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2 013/05/17/fracking-poses-a-risk-to-our-w ater-supply/#.UcwaMGBR5zA

Posted by Richschiff | Report as abusive

C’mon Mac. Do you really think that any one working in the coal mines, nuclear industry or the oil field would consciously and willingly expose themselves, their children, family, friends and community to something that is known to be dangerous and a threat? I think not. And if the companies did, do you really believe there would not be at least one employee exposing any infraction or violation? That goes for both environmental issues and employee safety. It’s just not tolerated, and employees are encouraged to report and violations, no matter how minor. You have greater exposure to health issues talking on your cell phone while driving (and I won’t even touch the pinheads texting while driving) or going to your local restaurant, your dry cleaner, in the air treatment system in your office building, or using “common” household products.

I will put the environmental, health and safety (EHS) processes in the oil industry against any other industry, including the federal government. It would be no contest. They “invest” in these functions because it’s the right thing to do, and their employees demand it as part of being members of the local community.

The science, which you reference, just is not there to support the “anti-fraccing” agenda. The technology is over 60 years old, with over 1 million wells being treated in the U.S. alone. Where are all the deaths and illnesses? Even the EPA has walked away, after attempting to prove that fraccing caused some water problems in two states, and was caught red-handed manipulating the data to support their predisposition to expose the violations. The science does not support the accusations, in spite of what Michael Moore publishes.

Yes, I do have an issue with those greens who preach an agenda which is in direct opposition with their behavior. It’s easy to rant and rave from a tower in San Francisco about coal mining in Wyoming, or the dams in Washington when the power they consume is generated out of state. And now California wants to impose their environmental standards on the states that produce 30% of the power they consume. So the issue is with the greens who will be the first to cry foul when the rolling brown-outs hit, but are only an obstacle when new power infrastructure is proposed–including solar in the desert or wind power along the coastal mountains in the Bay Area. Been there, seen it.

You may believe you can have it both ways, but for at least the next 30 years, you will be reliant on oil and gas. Embrace that thought for a second and the implications should the energy you expect not be available. The current agenda is to replace coal with natural gas. It’s a trade-off, not a solution. And do not forget that any so-called clean technologies will have trade-offs as well, if only in the manufacturing process. Whether the emissions from manufacturing are in the U.S. or Asia, the net result is that you will have emissions.

With seven billion people in the world, rapidly going to eight, change is going to take time in spite of your best intentions.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

A reader of the article informed me of a move by investors in several gas drilling companies calling for greater transparency on the methane issue. He wrote:

Large groups of investors in a number of natural gas companies have expressed serious concern about how they are handling the situation.

With investors asking these questions I think there are a number of issues raised:

1 – Will the companies be able to ignore such significant shareholder concern?

and

2 – Why are the companies not reporting information in SEC financial filings that investors clearly want to see?

Please see our press release below.

http://www.trilliuminvest.com/uncategori zed/fugitive-methane-shareholder-proposa ls-receive-strong-support-from-investors  /

Posted by Richschiff | Report as abusive