In a much anticipated report, burning natural gas attained by fracking, a controversial drilling technique, has been shown to release far more greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought. Indeed, the report suggests over a 20 year period, the emissions associated with fracked gas is 20% and perhaps even up to 50% higher than coal.
Professor Robert W. Howarth of Cornell University, one of the authors of this report, had previously suggested this in his preliminary assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions of fracked gas.
This will be another blow to the fracking industry which is increasingly under fire. This includes examples such as a moratorium on fracking in France, partial moratorium in Quebec, and provincial review of fracking in Nova Scotia.
A bit of background:
Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking is a means to extract natural gas trapped deep inside rock. Huge volumes of water and sand along with some toxic chemicals are blasted from a well bore into rock formations such as shale, coal beds and “tight” sands. This “injection” process creates cracks which allow pockets of natural gas to flow up the well. While fracking technology is around sixty years old, its recent pairing with horizontal drilling alongside diminishing conventional natural gas production (easier and cheaper to produce, but we are running out) is ushering in an unconventional natural gas “boom.”
The Council of Canadians: No Fracking Way!
The Council of Canadians is committed to opposing fracking in Canada. You can see our webpage on fracking here, including our fact sheet. We have already had some success working with local partners and have participated in an Ontario Energy Board process raising concerns around fracking. A number of chapters are engaged in local and provincial challenges to fracking. This includes the Inverness County Chapter in Nova Scotia and Lethridge chapter in Alberta. The Inverness County Chapter has been an important voice in building opposition which recently led the provincial government to agree to conduct a review on fracking.
People following the issue of fracking are likely familiar with the dramatic risks it poses to water. There are hundreds, if not thousands of reports of drinking water sources contaminated with methane near fracking projects in the U.S. – water so contaminated people can literally light their tap water on fire. Fracking also requires huge volumes of water and the chemicals used in the process can contaminate water and pose risks to people’s health.
Fracking greenwash: unconventional natural gas is a false solution to the climate crisis
To start with, any energy resource that sacrifices water protection and threatens people’s health and environmental safety in such significant ways can not be accepted as a solution to the climate crisis.Lesser known than water and health impacts are the questions around the climate impacts of fracked gas. Natural gas is often framed as a transitional fuel off of oil and coal to renewable resources such as wind and solar power, hydro and tidal power, biogas and public transporation. While natural gas burns cleaner than oil and coal, there remains too many questions about the full emissions, or life cycle of fracking gas – questions which this new report seeks to answer.
Methane: a Potent Greenhouse Gas Emissions
This new study adds to one released earlier this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that shows that, in fracking operations, methane emissions were up to 9,000 times higher than previously reported.
Here are some key findings from the pre-publication version of the report:
- Methane emissions from fracking are at least 30% more than those, and perhaps twice as great as those from conventional gas.
- Increased methane emissions is associated with the fracking as methane escapes from flow back return fluids. Otherwise the methane emissions are similar to conventional gas.
- Methane is a powerful GHG that is more potent on a short-term timescale.
- The footprint of shale gas is greater than conventional over any time period but particularly so over 20 years: “Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”
If these results are anywhere close to accurate, and I haven’t seen anything convincing otherwise, it blows a great big huge hole in the argument that fracked gas is a viable transition fuel in the quest to kick our fossil fuel habit.
This is particularly bad news for the development of the Horn River Basin shale. Briefing notes prepared for Canada’s Natural Resource Minister Christian Paradis, acquired by the Council of Canadians using a Freedom of Information Request, state clearly that shale gas development could contribute significantly to Canadian emissions, particularly if the Horn River Basin shale in B.C. is developed because it is of a higher carbon dioxide level. Take this alongside the potential for significant methane emissions and the depletion and contamination of water, you’ve got some pretty compelling reasons to just leave the shale in the ground, a demand that is building strength in B.C. and beyond.
It will be important to ensure that this doesn’t result in increasing reliance on oil and coal, but rather growing pressure on governments for real solutions including vastly improved conservation and energy efficiency, development of renewable energy resources, public transportation and sustainable agriculture.