Gas from 'fracking' not climate friendly

Jeremy Hance
April 13, 2011

It appears every time a fossil fuels industry claims its energy is 'green' or 'climate-friendly', scientists discover this just isn't so. The most recent culprit is natural gas produced by an already controversial method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which extracts the gas from shale basins. A new study in Climatic Change has found that the process of fracking is worse than coal over a 20-year period and about equal over 100-years. Coal had long been considered the worst climate offender of all energy options.

According to the study, fracking causes methane leaks—a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon—in addition to carbon emissions when the gas is burned. Over two decades, the emissions are around 20% higher than coal.

"We should not proceed to view shale gas as a 'transitional fuel' to be used over the next few decades to replace other fossil fuels, but rather work harder to move towards truly green renewable fuels as quickly as possible, such as wind and solar," lead author Robert Howarth told the BBC.

According to researchers the study may in fact be an underestimate of the realities of fracking. Researchers estimated emissions based on the industry using 'best practices'. However, the industry, which is most common in the US, is unregulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and no one knows if best practices are used; they are certainly not currently enforced.

On the other hand, the researchers admit they had very little data to go on because the industry is notoriously non-transparent. To date, the US government has yet to insist on transparency.

An industry website, Energy in Depth, disputes the study by pointing out that it focuses on the 20-year timeline, instead of the more common 100-year timeline. Methane has a shorter life than carbon, so its effect is worse in the beginning, but not as long lasting. Still, even at the 100-year timeline the emissions were largely equal to coal. The industry also criticizes the study for its reliance on little data; however, it's the industry, not the scientists that oppose rigorous studies. Finally, Energy in Depth attacks Howarth for being a known activist against hydraulic fracturing.

Howarth's study, however, is likely only the beginning of a long analysis of the environmental issues facing hydraulic fracturing.

Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, hydraulic fracturing has come under criticism for a number of other environmental issues: intensive water use, infrastructure on otherwise undeveloped lands, and some evidence of toxic pollution, including known carcinogenics. Last year the EPA discovered deadly chemicals—arsenic, copper, vanadium and adamantanes—in drinking water wells near fracking sites.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (April 13, 2011).

Gas from 'fracking' not climate friendly.