McKibben: The Fractured Hope for Fracking

September 8, 2014


During two days of intensive airborne measurements, oil and gas operations in Colorado’s Front Range leaked nearly three times as much methane, a greenhouse gas, as predicted based on inventory estimates, and seven times as much benzene, a regulated air toxic. Emissions of other chemicals that contribute to summertime ozone pollution were about twice as high as estimates, according to the new paper, accepted for publication in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

See more details in the Bloomberg piece lower in this post.

Bill Mckibben in Mother Jones:

If you’re a politician, science is a bitch; it resists spin. And a new set of studies—about, of all things, a simple molecule known as CH4—show that President Obama’s climate change strategy is starting to unravel even as it’s being knit. To be specific: most of the administration’s theoretical gains in the fight against global warming have come from substituting natural gas for coal. But it looks now as if that doesn’t really help…

…For a political leader, it was the very definition of a lucky break: Without having to do much heavy lifting against the power of the fossil fuel industry, the administration was able to produce results. In fact, it gave Obama cover from the right, as he in essence turned the GOP chant of “Drill Baby Drill” into “Frack Baby Frack.” Not only that, the cheap gas was a boost to sputtering American manufacturing, making it profitable once again to make chemicals and other goods close to home. As Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address, as his re-election campaign geared up, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly a hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”

In his second term, Obama has become more vocal about climate change—and even more explicit in his reliance on natural gas to make the numbers work. Here’s the State of the Union 2014: “if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”…

…Whether that strategy pays off or not, a likely result of the new EPA regulations, as Forbes magazine pointed out that day, is “the dramatic expansion of natural gas as a fuel for power generation.” Some sun, some wind, but an awful lot of gas. In fact, the administration is so bullish on fracked gas that it is both moving to export more of our supply to other nations (it’s even been suggested as a way to stand up to Vladimir Putin) and offering many countries technical assistance in learning how to frack on their own. (NTF: SEE: UKRAINE and R. Hunter Biden)A long list, including India, China, Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico have taken up the State Department on the offer…

Below –

CIRES and NOAA scientists are flying a Twin Otter aircraft over and around the oil-rich Bakken formation in western North Dakota. In this TOPDOWN 2014 project, scientist are quantifying chemical emissions from the Bakken including methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ethane, and ozone


The Environmental Protection Agency significantly underestimates the amount and potency of methane emissions, which understates the climate impact of hydraulic fracturing, two Cornell University researchers said May 7.

Professors Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea told reporters the administration has overestimated the climate benefits of increased reliance on natural gas compared to other fossil fuels such as coal. As a result, the White House’s recent strategy to address methane won’t provide the emissions reductions necessary to address the impacts of climate change, they said.

The EPA estimates methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period when it calculates the pollutant’s effect on climate. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has increased its estimate of methane’s potency in every report since 1996, and it now estimates methane to be 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“The global warming potential of methane is much higher than we thought it was, and the actual emission rates were much higher than we thought they were,” Ingraffea said.

The EPA told Bloomberg BNA May 7 it will begin using a global warming potential of 25 for methane for its national greenhouse gas inventory beginning in 2015. That is consistent with agreements under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, it said.

Regulations Insufficient

The White House issued its methane strategy March 28. The plan calls for the EPA to reconsider methane emissions controls for the oil and natural gas industry. It also requires the agency to propose methane controls for landfills. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management must address methane emitted from coal mines operating on federal lands.

Howarth and Ingraffea said the administration’s focus on regulating oil and natural gas wells while encouraging the use of natural gas as an alternative to coal won’t result in needed emissions reductions in the next two decades. Ingraffea said regulations move too slowly to provide significant benefits for the climate.

“Enacting regulations that encourage the industry to spend more money fixing leaks and stopping venting is too late,” he said.

Methane Levels Triple Estimates

Meanwhile, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder found that measured methane leaks from oil and gas operations in Colorado’s Front Range were three times greater than predicted by emissions inventory estimates, according to a May 7 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

Howarth and Ingraffea pointed to that study as further evidence that hydraulic fracturing is more damaging to the climate than the administration has previously estimated.

A similar study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2013 said the EPA could be underestimating methane emission by as much as 50 percent.

Representatives of the American Petroleum Institute hadn’t yet reviewed the University of Colorado Boulder study May 7, but spokesman Carlton Carroll defended the benefits of increased use of natural gas.

“U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are down significantly thanks in large part to hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas revolution,” he said in a statement. “Companies are leading the way to reduce emissions, and studies show that methane leaks are a fraction of what EPA predicted just a few years ago. And emissions will continue to fall as existing EPA regulations continue being implemented. The industry already has every incentive to reduce methane emissions because capturing and selling more methane rather than losing it in the atmosphere makes business sense.”

One Response to “McKibben: The Fractured Hope for Fracking”

  1. So where does this leave us?

    1.  Coal is far too polluting to continue to use.  We’re emitting at least 5 times as much CO2 as the environment can handle.
    2.  The touted “replacement”, natural gas, still emits half as much CO2 as coal and only achieves that improvement when it is used at optimal efficiency in combined-cycle gas turbine generating plants.  When used in simple-cycle plants the improvement is much smaller.
    3.  Leaking methane makes the short-term climate change contribution from natural gas even worse than coal.

    Did I miss anything?  (And is there any chance of getting support for list tags, and a preview for comments?  It’s not the 1990’s any more, folks.)

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