We recently declared the debate over fracking in America over.
Despite documented evidence that the surge in oil and natural gas drilling has resulted in cases of local environmental damage, the boom’s net benefits to the economy have resulted in a silent consensus that it should be allowed to continue.
But there remains an ongoing discussion about the boom’s benefits to climate. You might think there are none, given that natural gas is a fossil fuel. However, there is lots of evidence that the closures of numerous CO2-emitting coal plants in favour of ones that run on now-cheap natural gas result in a net benefit for climate change. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, and CO2 emissions were measured at an 18-year low last year.
Still, some argue this climate benefit is a myth, because natural gas production creates a greenhouse gas even more potent than CO2: methane.
Scientists agree that methane’s potential to impact climate change is much higher than CO2, since it is the purest form of hydrocarbon.
But whether it’s so much higher that we need to reevaluate where the shale boom is going depends on who’s counting.
The touchstone study for those arguing about the dangers of methane is a 2011 Cornell paper in which researchers argued that the methane emitted over a 20-year lifetime of a natural gas well — from its drilling to its cubic foot of output — was so great that it negates the climate benefit of killing off coal.
The study made environmentalists go ballistic. Bill McKibben wrote about it in the New York Review, and it was prominently featured in “Gas Lands 2,” a documentary about the threat fracking poses to the Delaware River Basin.
The study’s lead author, Robert Howarth, has come out against the EPA’s new emissions regulations, arguing they make the “fundamental flaw” of suggesting natural gas-powered plants are better for the environment than ones that run on coal.
Then, this February, a team led by Stanford energy resources engineering professor Adam Brandt published a survey of all known studies of methane emissions magnitudes — including the Cornell study — and compared them with how much methane the EPA says is escaping into the atmosphere.
They found that virtually every study in their survey found methane leaks that were higher than EPA measurements.
How bad is it?
“The best evidence suggests the EPA is underestimating emissions by something like 50%, and it’s unclear at this point exactly where the extra is coming from,” Brandt said in a video presentation on the study
But Brandt believes the original Cornell study, which was included in his team’s survey, actually overstates the climate impact of natural gas development, because the study only measures the impact over 20 years. Although methane is more potent than CO2, it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long.
Over a century, Brandt found, there are climate gains from transitioning from coal to natural gas.
Leakier… but still better?
“Even though the gas system is almost certainly leakier than previously thought, generating electricity by burning gas rather than coal still reduces the total greenhouse effect over 100 years,” Brandt’s team says in a summary of their study. “Not only does burning coal release an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, mining it releases methane.”
For natural gas production to overwhelm the benefits from reducing coal output over this timespan, Brand et. al explain, all the excess methane now found in the atmosphere would have to come from the natural gas industry, which they find improbable. You’d then have to believe that power generation suffers from the same distribution losses as other leaky end uses, something Brandt’s team says is unlikely because power stations are generally connected to higher pressure mains.
The Cornell authors dispute the 100-year timespan, arguing that methane is so powerful that we don’t have 100 years to measure its impact. They also assert that the potential sources of leaks in the natural gas production lifecycle are so numerous that it is unjustifiable to be conservative about what fugitive emissions rates might be.
The Stanford group did find no benefits for trucks and buses who switched to natural gas from diesel, because diesel burns cleaner than both coal and leaky natural gas.
“Fueling trucks and buses with natural gas may help local air quality and reduce oil imports, but it is not likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even running passenger cars on natural gas instead of gasoline is probably on the borderline in terms of climate,” the Stanford summary says.
Methane needs more regulation
Since Brandt et al.’s paper was published in February, other studies have come out that confirm their findings on power plants, Brandt said. But he nevertheless acknowledged that natural gas companies and regulators must work to bring the methane emissions rate down to a more comfortable level.
Right now, Colorado is the only state that has approved methane emissions regulations. The EPA punted on methane rules in its newest set of CO2 rules. Dan Utech, the special assistant to the president for energy and climate change, has said the agency was looking into oil and gas methane emissions, but that any new rules wouldn’t come until 2016.
Consulting group ICF has argued that methane emissions from oil and gas could be cut by 40% for a cost of just $US108 million per year across the entire industry — a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions that now pour into upstream development. Plus, many of the leaks can actually be captured and sold.
To us, it seems like a minimal amount of drama would be needed to fix these problems. Delaying on tying up leaks in the natural gas pipeline will just create more problems in the long run.
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