Study: Emissions from Shale Gas Worse than Coal

Natural gas extracted from shale formations has a greater greenhouse gas footprint – because of methane emissions – than conventional gas, oil and coal over a 20 year period. Methane emits 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions as does carbon.

This calls into question the logic of using natural gas as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, according to Robert Howarth and colleagues, from Cornell University in New York. Their work research is published online in Springer’s journal, Climatic Change Letters.

Natural gas has long been touted as a fairly clean source of fossil fuels, but that was when it was derived as a byproduct of oil refining. Now, with increasing reliance on fracking from shale formations underground, the picture is very different.

And homeowners around the country are being assaulted by the natural gas industry that wants to drill on their land

Meanwhile, TB Pickens, who became a household name when he promoted a combination of wind and natural gas to solve our oil dependency problem, has now dropped the wind part of the equation. If the country transitions into natural gas as its main source of energy, that would make Pickens a natural gas baron.  

Shale gas has become an increasingly important source of natural gas in the United States over the past decade. Howarth and team evaluated the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas, obtained by high-volume hydraulic fracturing of shale formations, focusing on methane emissions. They analyzed the most recently published data–in particular, the technical background document on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry (EPA 2010), as well as a report on natural gas losses on federal lands from the General Accountability Office (GAO 2010).

They calculated that, overall, during the life cycle of an average shale-gas well, between 4% to 8% of the total production of the well is emitted to the atmosphere as methane, via routine venting and equipment leaks, as well as with flow-back return fluids during drill out following the fracturing of the shale formations. Routine production and downstream methane emissions are also large, but comparable to those of conventional gas.

Shale gas is extracted by a high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process. Large volumes of water are forced under pressure into the shale to fracture and re-fracture the rock to boost gas flow. A significant amount of water returns to the surface as flow-back within the first few days to weeks after injection and is accompanied by large quantities of methane.

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but methane also has a 10-fold shorter residence time in the atmosphere. As a result, its effect on global warming falls more rapidly. Methane dominates the greenhouse gas footprint for shale gas on a 20 year horizon, contributing up to three times more than does direct carbon dioxide emission. At this time scale, the footprint for shale gas is at least 20% greater than that for coal, and perhaps twice as great.

Robert Howarth concludes: "The large greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming. The full footprint should be used in planning for alternative energy futures that adequately consider global climate change."

In Related News…

Shell, ConocoPhillips, BP, and 21 other natural gas companies are disclosing the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process on a new national registry.

The Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) have launched the site (at the link below), with funding from the Department of Energy.

It shows the chemials used in the shale gas drilling process on a well-by-well basis for all new wells drilled, beginning in 2011.

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