Mark Jacobson on Impacts of Natural Gas
April 29, 2016
Working on a new climate solutions vid, using the interview that Jim Byrne and I conducted with Mark Jacobson in December.
Jacobson is one of the most well known researchers in the area of renewable energy, and how states, cities, and countries can transition to zero carbon energy in the near term.
His take on natural gas as the “bridge to the future” is quick, and sobering.
The body of evidence is growing that fracking is not only bad for the global climate, it is also dangerous for local communities.
And affected communities are growing in number. A new report, released Thursday, details the sheer amount of water contamination, air pollution, climate impacts, and chemical use in fracking in the United States.
“For the past decade, fracking has been a nightmare for our drinking water, our open spaces, and our climate,” Rachel Richardson, a co-author of the paper from Environment America, told ThinkProgress.
Fracking, a form of extraction that injects large volumes of chemical-laced water into shale, releasing pockets of oil and gas, has been on the rise in the United States for the past decade, and the sheer numbers are staggering. Environment America reports that at least 239 billion gallons of water — an average of three million gallons per well — has been used for fracking. In 2014 alone, fracking created 15 billion gallons of wastewater. This water generally cannot be reused, and is often toxic. Fracking operators reinject the water underground, where it can leach into drinking water sources. The chemicals can include formaldehyde, benzene, and hydrochloric acid.
Fracking is also bad news for the climate. Natural gas is 80 percent methane, which traps heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year period. Newly fracked wells released 2.4 million metric tons of methane in 2014 — equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 22 coal-fired power plants.
“Whether you are already on the front lines of fracking or are simply worried about your children having a safe future, the numbers don’t lie,” Richardson said.
At this point, more than a thousand square miles of the country have been disturbed by fracking activity, the report says, with 137,000 fracking wells drilled or permitted across more than 20 states.
“I think the report paints a frightening picture of fracking’s harms,” Richardson said. “A lot of these harms are things that people living on fracking’s front lines are experiencing first hand.”
It’s not just humans who are being impacted. In one area of Wyoming, the mule deer population has fallen by 40 percent in the past 15 years — coinciding, the report says, with a fracking boom in the Pinedale Mesa region.
The detrimental results of fracking are borne up by a slew of stories and lawsuits documenting the practice’s impact on local communities.
Two families in Pennsylvania were awarded more than $4 million in March — ending a seven-year legal battle against a fracking company they said contaminated local water sources. Last summer, a Texas man was severely burned after methane, allegedly from nearby fracking, caused an explosion in his well shed. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, earthquakes are on the rise, and at least one woman is suing a local oil and gas company for damages from injuries incurred during an allegedly fracking-related earthquake.
Last summer, scientists in Texas found elevated levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the drinking water in one of the state’s major fracking regions.
Moreover, fracking just one part of a growing phenomenon that is putting Americans at risk: our entire natural gas system. Fracking is just the first step. Natural gas transportation — largely through an extensive pipeline system — also poses serious risks and environmental degradation. In Pennsylvania, a group of farmers is fighting eminent domain claims that have allowed a pipeline construction company to come onto their property and cut down trees to run a liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline that will ultimately connect with export terminals along the east coast. Natural gas storage is an issue: The nation’s largest-ever natural gas leak occurred this past winter, when a Southern California storage facility released more than 97,000 metric tons of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere.
The Environmental Protection Agency has released a major upward revision to its estimates of total emissions of methane, a hard-hitting if short-lived greenhouse gas, in an annual inventory that the agency submits to the United Nations. The revisions will further up the stakes in a political battle over regulations that the agency is preparing to issue that could affect operations at thousands of oil and gas wells.
“Data on oil and gas show that methane emissions from the sector are higher than previously estimated,” said the agency in a news release upon the report’s release. “The oil and gas sector is the largest emitting-sector for methane and accounts for a third of total U.S. methane emissions.”
Prior inventories, such as last year’s report, which provided data through the year 2013, had suggested that the U.S.’s highest source of methane was ruminant animals like cattle and other livestock, rather than the oil and gas industry.
The agency revised upward total methane emissions in the U.S. for the year 2013 from 636.3 million metric tons to 721.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, driven in significant part by increased estimates of emissions from oil and gas operations. And the overall methane emissions number is still higher for 2014, the most recent year in the inventory, at 730.8 million metric tons.
“What EPA essentially is doing is restating the numbers using the better data, that has been collected from the field,” said Mark Brownstein, who heads the oil and gas program at the Environmental Defense Fund, which has focused heavily on the methane issue in recent years. “What has long been thought is that emissions in the field are higher than what had been historically reported in EPA’s emissions inventory, and now, when you use that better data, it is higher.”