The darkness behind fracking’s silver lining
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