Fracking Under Fire

Posted on April 13, 2011. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , , , |

Natural gas is making lots of headlines these days. Vast natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale region (spanning PA, NY, MD and DE) have been touted by some a major step in meeting US energy needs with domestic resources. Many progressives (including President Obama and the NRDC)  have joined more conventional allies of natural gas in touting it as a “bridge fuel” between fossil fuel generation and renewable options due to its lower emissions profile when burning.

However, the reason domestic natural gas has become so abundant is that a new extraction technique has opened up once unaccessible reserves. Fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into a well to force up the underlying gas from the shale. This process is water intensive and has led to contamination of local water sources. As a result, this technique has been highly contentious, facing challenges from local enviromental groups and national organizations like the Sierra Club. It has even been banned in several jurisdictions in New York and Pennsylvania. So while on the one hand, environmentalists concerned about climate change are drawn to the promise of natural gas as a path away from coal, they are also concerned about the negative of impacts of fracking for local communities.  

To add to the mix, this week brought a flurry of coverage on two recent studies that put shale gas above coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. As the NY Times explains, one of the studies by a Cornell University researcher examined the climate change impact of methane released during fracking and transportation of gas through pipelines. The study found that 3.6-7.9% of the methane is released into the atmosphere through fracking and other unconventional natural gas extraction methods. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas (21 times more so than carbon dioxide), the emissions profile of shale gas compared to coal is higher over a twenty year time span. Building off this study, another researcher at the Post Carbon Institute concluded that a concentrated switch to natural gas would actually increase, rather than decrease US greehouse gas emissions.

These studies are hopefully the first of many that look deeper into the lifecycle and full environmental impacts of shale natural gas extraction. The lead researcher in the Cornell study, Michael Howarth put it like this:

“I don’t think this is the end of the story…I think this is just the beginning of the story, and before governments and the industry push ahead on gas development, at the very least we ought to do a better job of making measurements.

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