A new Environmental Defense Fund-University of Texas methane gas study has exposed deepening rifts in the environmental movement over the future of natural gas.
One of the central tenets of anti-shale gas activists -- such as green campaigner Bill McKibben, NGO's like Environmental Working Group or websites like Desmogblog -- is that methane leaked during the hydraulic fracturing extraction process makes natural gas more carbon polluting than coal carbon. The assertion that 'natural gas is bridge to a low carbon energy future' is a sham, they claim. But a growing number of progressive-minded energy experts at the EDF, Natural Resources Defense Council, Council on Foreign Relations and elsewhere are taking a more science-based approach, and letting the empirical evidence guide their views.
Indeed, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so leaks could theoretically wipe out the documented climate benefits with respect to reduced carbon emissions of natural gas, a comparatively clean fossil fuel. But the fears were based almost entirely on a contested study presented as a letter and released two years ago by two Cornell University scientists who claimed catastrophic levels of methane were being leaked by fracking operations.
In its most recent estimate based on ancient data extending back to 1990 to the Paleolithic era of shale gas extraction technology, the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated that "natural gas systems" emit about 1.3 percent of total natural gas production. Many in the natural gas industry had asserted that this estimate was outdated and way too high, while anti-fracking campaigners said it understated the methane leakage problem.
Now we almost certainly know the answer. Released September 23, the report led by David Allen at the University of Texas found that methane emissions from new wells being prepared for production, a process known as completion, captured 99 percent of the escaping methane -- on average 97 percent lower than the 2011 EPA estimates. It is the most comprehensive shale gas emissions study ever undertaken on methane leakage, covering 190 well pads around the United States.
Energy experts and environmentalists celebrated the finding that almost all the escaping methane could be captured by state of the art equipment. "The good news is that under EPA regulations issued in April 2012 most fracked natural gas wells will have to capture or flare methane during well completions staring in 2015," wrote Dan Lashof on his blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
David Fuller's view This is welcome news and another triumph for technological innovation. If you agree, tell your politicians because the world needs to use more natural gas and fracking provides access to the shale reserves in most countries.Back to top