Natural gas, especially fracked gas, drives climate change
In the past several years, a new understanding about the impact of natural gas on climate change has developed, which directly contradicts claims that it is a “clean fuel” or “reduces greenhouse gas emissions”. Natural gas is primarily methane. While it is true that methane, when burned, emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of energy released, it is also true that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Gas is worse for the climate than oil and even coal if only relatively small amounts of methane leak, unburned, during extraction and transport. Methane emissions at the wellhead are considerably higher for shale gas, which is extracted through hydraulic fracturing, also called “fracking”. The percentage of natural gas extracted through fracking has increased dramatically since 2005 and now accounts for far more than half of the natural gas production in the U.S. Peer-reviewed papers by Cornell scientists published in 2011 and 20141 examined the greenhouse gas footprint (GHG) of “conventional” and shale gas. The abstract of the 2014 paper says:
Using these new, best available data and a 20-year time period for comparing the warming potential of methane to carbon dioxide, the conclusion stands that both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger GHG than do coal or oil, for any possible use of natural gas and particularly for the primary uses of residential and commercial heating. The 20-year time period is appropriate because of the urgent need to reduce methane emissions over the coming 15–35 years.
Over the long term, the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere is the biggest climate change driver. However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over the 20-year term methane has 86 times more global warming potential than CO22, making methane leaks a very significant climate change factor in the critical short term. Since there’s an urgent need to reduce human-generated GHG emissions to zero over the next few decades, switching to a fuel that increases GHG in the short term is counterproductive. In other words, if a fuel increases GHG over 20 years, it can’t be a “bridge fuel”.
At the time that the Cornell scientists were doing their investigations, there were insufficient data on methane emissions associated with gas extraction and transport. Most of the information came from industry sources and did not reflect the increased use of fracking. Since that time the estimates of methane emissions have been revised steadily upward. For example, a peer-reviewed 2016 paper3 in Geophysical Research Letters reports a large increase corresponding to the so-called “fracking boom”. The researchers used satellite and surface measurements of atmospheric methane and found evidence “that U.S. methane emissions have increased by more than 30% over the 2002–2014 period.” According to the paper’s authors, “This large increase in U.S. methane emissions could account for 30–60% of the global growth of atmospheric methane seen in the past decade.”
In summary, over the critical short term, natural gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than oil and even coal, and it is contributing more to climate change than other fuels.
1 Howarth, R. W., “A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas”, Energy Science and Engineering, http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/publications/Howarth_2014_ESE_methane_emissions.pdf
2 IPCC. 2013. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/ 3 Turner, A. J., D. J. Jacob, J. Benmergui, S. C. Wofsy, J. D. Maasakkers, A. Butz, O. Hasekamp, and S. C. Biraud (2016), “A large increase in U.S. methane emissions over the past decade inferred from satellite data and surface observations”, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, 2218–2224, doi:10.1002/2016GL067987.
Suggested additional reading:
- Fossil fuel industry’s methane emissions far higher than thought (The Gaurdian) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/05/fossil-fuel-industrys-methane-emissions-far-higher-than-thought
- Methane Emissions Threaten to Undermine Natural-Gas Offensive (Bloomberg) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-03/methane-emissions-threaten-to-undermine-natural-gas-offensive
- Methane Leaks May Greatly Exceed Estimates, Report Says (New York Times) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/science/methane-leaks-may-greatly-exceed-estimates-report-says.html?_r=0
- EPA Moves to Cut Methane Leaks from Oil and Gas (Scientific American) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/epa-moves-to-cut-methane-leaks-from-oil-and-gas/
Fracking creates serious hazards and public health risks
Between 2009 and 2015 at least 685 papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals relating to the potential impacts of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD, another term for gas fracking) on water quality, air quality and public health. A 2016 paper published in the journal PLOS One categorized all the available data during that period1. The abstract says, “This paper demonstrates that the weight of the findings in the scientific literature indicates hazards and elevated risks to human health as well as possible adverse health outcomes associated with UNGD.”
Fracking pollutes drinking water.
The EPA concluded in a report released in December 20162 that fracking (hydraulic fracturing) to extract gas and oil has contaminated groundwater and surface water, including “contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable”. The hydraulic fluid that is forced into boreholes at high pressure is a mixture of water and chemicals, some very toxic or carcinogenic. When that fluid makes its way into an aquifer through fractures in the bedrock, water wells that use that aquifer become polluted. In many cases the homeowner has no way to know what is contaminating the well. Even the EPA doesn’t know all of the chemicals pumped into fracking wells because their information comes mostly from the gas and oil industry, which has no interest in full disclosure. The toxicity of the fluid is likewise not fully understood. The EPA reported that it was only able to find toxicity data “for 98 of the 1,084 chemicals that were reported to have been used in hydraulic fracturing fluids between 2005 and 2013.”
People living near fracking are more likely to get sick
According to peer-reviewed research from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, “Hospitalizations for heart conditions, neurological illness, and other conditions were higher among people who live near unconventional gas and oil drilling (hydraulic fracturing).”3 The study looked at hospitalizations of people living in 18 zip codes in Pennsylvania that had a high density of fracking wells. It found that “residents living in these zip codes were predicted to have a 27 percent increase in cardiology inpatient prevalence rates for each year this specific active well density existed compared to Wayne County residents where there is no drilling.” The study also found a higher rate of “hospitalizations for skin conditions, cancer, and urologic problems” for people living near active wells.
Fracking has been correlated with low birth weights and long-term health problems
Surface water contamination and air pollution can occur when the so-called “produced water” (fracking fluid mixed with naturally occurring material) is forced back up the borehole during fracking. That fluid, which is stored in ponds, includes hydrocarbons (methane, volatile organic compounds including benzene) and agents from the shale bed (radionuclides, toxic metals like arsenic, barium, strontium). Research from the University of Pittsburgh4 concludes that mothers living near fracking wells in Pennsylvania are 34 percent more likely to have babies with low birth weight. As the paper points out, “benzene in air has been associated with adverse birth outcomes.” Low birth weight predisposes babies for health problems immediately and later in life.
1 Hays, J., Shonkoff, S., “Toward an Understanding of the Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development: A Categorical Assessment of the Peer-Reviewed Scientific Literature, 2009-2015”, http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154164
2 U.S. EPA. “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States (Executive Summary)”. http://ofmpub.epa.gov/eims/eimscomm.getfile?p_download_id=530285
3 News release: “Hydraulic Fracturing Linked to Increases in Hospitalization Rates in the Marcellus Shale Region, According to Penn Study ”, Penn Medicine, https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2015/july/hydraulic-fracturing-linked-to
4 News release: “Lower Birth Weight Associated with Proximity of Mother’s Home to Gas Wells”, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, http://www.upmc.com/media/NewsReleases/2015/Pages/plos-one.aspx
Suggested additional reading:
- Exemptions for hydraulic fracturing under United States federal law (Wikipedia)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exemptions_for_hydraulic_fracturing_under_United_States_federal_law
- Doctors call for state ban on drilling and fracking (Pittsburg Post-Gazette) http://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2016/10/27/Doctors-group-calls-for-moratorium-on-fracking-in-Pennsylvania/stories/201610270226
- Too Dirty, Too Dangerous: Why health professionals reject natural gas (Physicians for Social Responsibility) Feb 2017, http://www.methanefacts.org/files/2017/02/too-dirty-too-dangerous.pdf
Uncertainties in future gas production and prices
In December, 2014 the journal Nature published an article titled “Natural gas: The fracking fallacy”1. It reported on research that challenged the widely reported industry and government assessment that U.S. reserves in shale deposits are so abundant as to provide decades, or more, of inexpensive gas to be unlocked by fracking. A team of petroleum engineers, geoscientists and economists from the University of Texas conducted of a set of studies on the major “shale plays”. They forecast a decline in production in the four large U.S. shale plays starting around 2020.
That study’s forecast is supported by a report that appeared in the industry publication OilPrice.com two years later.2 The report’s author, Arthur Berman is a petroleum geologist and an expert on U.S. shale plays with 36 years of oil and gas industry experience. He cites data that gas production has been dropping since February 2016. He says, “Shale gas production is declining and conventional gas has been in terminal decline for the past 15 years.”
Natural gas prices are notoriously volatile. While prices are currently low3, Berman says in his OilPrice.com report, “Why Cheap Natural Gas Is History”, that two supply and demand factors will ultimately combine to drive up gas prices. On the supply side is declining production. On the demand side is the increase in exports, in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Berman says, as of late January 2017, ”current gas prices are under-valued and should be at least $3.75 and probably closer to $4.00”. (From late January to mid-March, gas prices fell from around $3.25 to less than $2.50 before rebounding to a bit over $3.00.)
An uncertain future for domestic natural gas users
Tad Patzek, head of the University of Texas department of petroleum and geosystems engineering, and a member of the team conducting the research cited in the Dec. 2014 Nature report, predicted a “fast decline” after peak gas production is hit. “That’s when there’s going to be a rude awakening for the United States,” given the massive investments in gas infrastructure, he says. He expects peak production to be followed by steeply rising gas prices. “The bottom line is, no matter what happens and how it unfolds,” he says, “it cannot be good for the US economy.”
According to Arthur Berman, LNG exports are only one of the supply and demand factors that will make current gas prices unsustainable. Another factor is the cost to extract the gas. While the mid-March average spot price for gas is just over $3.00/mmBtu, Berman says, “Only the Marcellus and core Utica [plays] break even at $4 gas prices. The Marcellus has stopped growing and more pipeline capacity to better-priced markets won’t happen as quickly as some analysts believe.”
Berman concluded, “Shale gas magical thinking remains strong but the paradigm of infinite, cheap supply is no longer working. There is now too much demand between power consumption and exports to keep up with declining production.”
1 Inman, M., “Natural gas: The fracking fallacy”, Nature, http://www.nature.com/news/natural-gas-the-fracking-fallacy-1.16430
2 Berman, A. “Why Cheap Natural Gas Is History”, http://oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/Why-Cheap-Natural-Gas-Is-History.html 3 Puko, T., “Gas Glut Reverses Lucrative 2016 Trade” Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/gas-glut-reverses-lucrative- 2016-trade-1489492959
Fact Sheet Prepared by Energy & Climate Upper Valley revised 16 March 2017