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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Joe Nocera Claims Fracking Raises U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Almost 20 Percent

Joe Nocera Claims Fracking Raises U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Almost 20 Percent

Tuesday, 28 February 2012 05:15

In his column today, which argues for responsible fracking, telling readers that there can be enormous gains from using cleaner techniques in fracking. In discussing the importance of reducing fracking related methane emissions Nocera comments:

"How big a difference will it make to the environment if industry can minimize methane leaks? A lot. ... Suppose, for instance, the current leak rate turns out to be 4 percent. Suppose we then reduce it in half. That would mean an immediate reduction in overall U.S. greenhouse gases by — are you sitting down for this? — 9 percent. If the leaks are reduced to 1 percent, the decrease in greenhouse gases jumps to 14 percent."

While Nocera does not make this point, but if cutting the methane emissions from fracking in half would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent, then the methane emissions must come to close to 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. If methane emissions are actually 6 percent, as indicated by a study Nocera cites, then fracking would account for more than one quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Nocera may have his numbers completely wrong, but the implication of the evidence presented in his piece is that fracking is an incredibly dirty process from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions. If his numbers are right, he makes a compelling case for banning fracking unless it can be done far more cleanly than is currently the case.

Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Ron Alley, February 28, 2012 5:39
I see you picked up on Joe Nocera's column.

Here is the comment I left.

You have done a great service by calling attention to the problem of methane emissions caused by drilling and fracking. However, a call to action needs both an accurate and a reasonably complete explanation of the underlying facts. I wish you had done a better job of explaining just how methane is emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the drilling and fracking. Mr. Krupp could have explained the process to you in detail and you could have relayed that explanation. Without such an explanation your column is little more than a Chicken Little call.

OBTW, I love your writing and read your column regularly.
1 methane molecule = 20 CO2 molecules
written by Robert Baillie, February 28, 2012 7:04
I don't know if this accounts for the surprisingly hi number, but a methane molecule has about 20 times the global warming impact as a molecule of CO2, in the short term.

On the other hand, methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere as long, so long term, the difference is less.
written by skeptonomist, February 28, 2012 7:57
The main point of Nocera's piece is that nobody knows how much leakage there is - estimates, which are just seat-of-the pants, are widely disparate. No one should be claiming that leakage cancels out gas's advantage over coal, as some extreme environmentalists do, or on the hand that leakage is negligible, without real definitive data. Nocera's illustrative calculation shows that the leakage rate could be critical. The value of fracking is something that will not be decided until more is known about it, such as leakage rates and the actual effects of various chemicals used in the process.
written by skeptonomist, February 28, 2012 8:06
By the way, the real decisions about these things may be made in an environment in which oil is much more expensive than it is now, and both coal and natural gas will be relatively much more important. I believe that conversion of coal to gasoline is very close to being economic at current oil prices. If oil price could be counted on to stay at or above current level there would probably be pressure for coal conversion. This would make natural gas production much more attractive whether or not there are strict environmental regulations.
Why We Should Stop Burning any and all Fuels ASAP
written by Gail Zawacki, February 28, 2012 9:41
There are two reasons the Obama administration told the EPA to forget about tightening regulations on ozone last fall -

1. It simply can't be done without drastic (as in rationing) cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, including from fracking, plus, international binding agreements - because, as has become widely known in the scientific community, precursors can circumnavigate the globe..and the constant background level of tropospheric ozone is inexorably rising because of it; &

2. The EPA draft review titled "Integrated Science Assessment for Ozone and Related Photochemical Oxidants" which includes new research since the last 2008 report, upon which their recommendations for stricter standards was to be based is - even couched in cautious, reticent bureaucratize - simply terrifying.

The government doesn't want the public to understand how extremely toxic the invisible poison we are choking the atmosphere with is to health, and even worse, they don't want the average grocery shopper to know air pollution is significantly diminishing the yield and nutritive quality of essential annual crops worldwide.

Trees and forests are dying everywhere from yearly cumulative damage. Do we want to continue to waste energy on non-essentials or do we want to grow up, conserve like crazy, and have our children inherit a world that still has nuts, fruit, shade, wildlife habitat, oxygen to breathe, and maple syrup?

Excerpts & links to EPA assessment here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/
written by Andrew Clearfield, February 28, 2012 11:40
Here's a recent post from John Hanger's blog (Hanger is one of the country's foremost environmentalists and also the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania DEP):

Hanger writes that Duke Professor Howarth - the leading critic of fracking - said in his most recent paper: "'Can shale-gas methane emissions be reduced. Clearly yes, and proposed EPA regulations to require capture of gas at the time of well completions are an important step.'"

Hanger continues: "The gas industry should for its own good take methane leakage seriously, as nothing more fundamentally risks damaging the brand of gas as a cleaner burning fuel than this issue. ... Even if the methane leakage rate was 4%, and again MIT thinks it is not, coal would emit substantially more carbon than gas when coal is used for electricity, and nearly all coal is used for that purpose in the USA. But there is no need for the methane leakage rate to be 4%. Cutting methane leakage rates should be something that unites and not divides."
written by Roger Pierce, February 28, 2012 12:30
NOAH's report on Colorado fracking indicated the leak rate could be as high as 7.7%. So, suppose...The problem could end being a LOT more problematic than Nocera indicates.
And while methane remains in the atmosphere for less time than CO2, the time is still an impressive 20 years versus the thousands of years for CO2. Earth's current climate can't withstand 20 years of methane leaks from fracking. As Jim Hansen of NASA said about the climate effect if Keystone pipeline was completed, it would be "game over".
written by ltr, February 28, 2012 12:58
Can someone please explain this simply? I really want to understand.
The value of fracking
written by David, February 28, 2012 2:06
Another external cost of fracking could be it's effect on the geological subfield and the ensuing impact on surface infrastructure and on aquifers. [Insert Rumsfeld quote here].

To "itr"
written by John Puma, February 29, 2012 3:16
You asked for an explanation. I'll give it a try.

1) Methane (natural gas, hereafter=NG) is a potent greenhouse gas.
2) NG is also a fuel the burning of which produces CO2 and water.
3) To find more NG to sell as fuel, its producers inject water underground to fracture rock structures (fracking) to release pockets of NG for collection. This inevitably results in NG escaping into the atmosphere where it increases, albeit minutely, the global warming problem.
4) Nocera is lobbying for fracking methods that allow less NG to escape. Note, each fracking site will have its own unique physical, geological characteristics so no, single "% NG escape" is meaningful
5) Whether or not those methods are used, the other major inevitable effect of fracking cannot be addressed, namely contamination of ground water.

Hope that helps. Feel free to ask any other questions
written by clarence swinney, March 05, 2012 11:54
A horror story. Golf in Riverside Calif. Finish 9 holes. Sirens start blaring. Get inside.
Pal said see those clouds? It is a beautiful day.
They are smog clouds. My eyes had burned all morn.
Sunday. Plane went out over ocean to turn and head east. Pilot:"Want to see Smog.Look out left side". Looked like rust colored insulation material 100 feet high as far as could see.
Regulations cleaned it. Emission controls on cars.
Acid Rain in my beautiful Smokey Mountains.
Gone. Regulations. Government can do good things.

written by KBurgoyne, March 05, 2012 1:06
While reading I was thinking: Hmmmm... There is another side to this leakage as well. The methane leaking into the atmosphere is a purely wasteful climate change issue. Not only is it a climate change issue, but it is also energy being LOST. To let it leak is purely wasteful. The NG industry is taking a cavalier attitude of "who cares if its lost, there's more where that comes from". Ya, for NOW.

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