Fracking’s Methane Problem

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imagesIt doesn’t take too long to scroll through the CHEJ blog roll to find multiple examples of the negative health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking. But, even if fracking could be done in a manner that did not pollute and negatively impact the lives of some of America’s most vulnerable citizens, there is another very important reason why fracking may not be the energy solution that many of our leaders believe it is.
First, let’s take a step back and quickly discuss a major reason why fracking has been a focal point in our energy strategy over the last decade, climate change. Because hydraulic fracturing allows energy producers to access natural gas sources, mostly made up of methane, natural gas has the capacity to mitigate climate change. This is due to the fact that, when burned as a fuel, natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as coal. This has led many, including Obama, to adopt the strategy of using natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to replace the most carbon-intense sources, such as coal, while renewable technology, such as wind and solar become cheap enough to use on a grand scale.
Even if we ignore the poor record of pollution and injustice associated with fracking, there is another huge hurdle in this “bridge fuel” plan. There is a significant portion of fracked natural gas that is not being burned as fuel and is being released directly into the atmosphere as methane, a greenhouse gas that is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This methane is often leaked into the atmosphere during the extraction process. Even with a minimal leakage rate, there is the potential that methane emissions are offsetting the climate benefits of natural gas and using the fuel could actually be worse for the climate than coal. This is particularly troubling, as it would mean a total failure of America’s climate change mitigation strategy over the last eight years.
Currently, the EPA reports very small leakage rates that are based on industry data. With this data, fracking might still pass this very important test. The only problem is that multiple studies have been produced just in the last five years that report much higher leakage rates and spell disaster for our climate as a result. A recent study by Harvard researchers reports leakage rates much higher than EPA numbers, and a 30 percent increase in methane emissions from 2002-2014.
Considering this troubling data about methane emission, not to mention the public health impacts of fracking, maybe it is time to give up this bridge fuel plan and start utilizing renewables on a grand scale now. At the very least, let’s stop using the argument that fracking is good for climate change and have a more honest dialogue about our energy future.
Find out more about fracking’s methane problem.

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