"Probably as dirty as coal -- could be marginally better or substantially worse"
Those are the "error bounds" of shale gas impacts on greenhouse effect and global warming described by an independent environmental scientist from Cornell we met in Binghamton NY. Even at the lower parameters, this is not good news.
On 9-15-10, attending the EPA meeting on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, professor of ecology and environmental biology, independent scientist Robert Howarth, Ph.D., told a news conference that natural gas extracted from shale is nearly as dirty as coal or perhaps even dirtier in terms of greenhouse gas footprint. This is because methane (which makes up most of natural gas) is far more potent than CO2 in worsening the greenhouse effect, global warming and climate change. Methane leaks into the atmosphere, per Prof. Howarth and other science estimates, make up between 1.5% to as much as 4% of all natural gas consumed.
(More below the fold)
The latter figure of 4% is not yet published and Prof. Howarth emphasized it was still only an educated estimate; he shared it with me in a conversation when I buttonholed him in the lobby after his public comment to the EPA. This figure includes methane leaks in the full lifecycle of shale gas production from extraction through tanking, shipping, compressing, pipelining, storing, refining and end use in electricity generation, heating and home appliances as well as purposeful venting of methane into the atmosphere from water wells where methane released by gas drilling and hydrofracking has migrated through crevices and old water wells into current water wells in 34 states across the country.
Add to this cumulative methane pollution the CO2 emissions into the atmosphere in full cycle production of shale gas and end use burning -- and we have a significant greenhouse exacerbation with worsening of global warming and climate change in the fuel literally shattered out of shale, touted as “clean and safe.” It is neither.
Howarth's statement to the EPA this week is big news in the PR battle the gas industry is waging to convince the public that shale gas and its production are "clean and safe." "Natural gas is not the clean fuel we've been led to believe," said Prof. Howarth, certainly not a good "bridge fuel" to get beyond coal to sustainable green energy. See Howarth's preliminary study (pdf) which he told us this week at Binghamton would be updated in a new paper in “the next month or two” which will be the first peer-reviewed study of the greenhouse footprint of shale gas. Also see our essay "Fracturing the Talking Points" for a breakdown of industry propaganda which has been masterful in convincing cash-strapped farmers and job-hungry citizens of 34 shale gas states that shale gas and the high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing used to get it out of the ground are clean as a whistle, safe, and good for you.
Below is a brief video clip we caught of Howarth's remarks at Binghamton (1:28). It starts in midsentence where he's saying "EPA has a paltry budget for this study" of shale gas extraction and hydrofracking but he encourages EPA to press on. But he suggests, "It's foolhardy to push ahead [with shale gas extraction with high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing] until we get the EPA study" (not due out until end of 2012).
Prof. Howarth’s research and other studies like it are crucial to help us sort out the truth in the face of seductive PR spread by the NG industry. “Let science guide policy.”
But it’s not working out that way. In this depressed economy, the need for jobs and lease cash from royalties in shale gas contracts are “guiding policy” by letting the shale gas craze barrel ahead like there’s no tomorrow, still exempt from most federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund bill arranged in 2005 by our friend Dick Cheney and his Energy Task Force. Remember them? No? Oh, that’s right, nobody does because they used public resources to conduct secret meetings whose members and agenda were kept from the American public. As you know by now, shale gas fracking is a patented technology of Halliburton. Cozy.
The EPA is only just now starting its study of environmental effects of shale gas production including but not limited to hydrofracking, and they won’t finish until at least the end of 2012. In these next two years thousands of shale gas wells will be drilled in PA and probably in NY state as well. Without federal or state studies on environmental and human health effects of shale gas extraction, we’re looking at a massive human (and animal and earth) experiment.
Our question is this: Is it worth it to:
* Tear up the land
which will be re-landscaped after the drillers go home but millions of gallons of frack-chemical laced water will be left below ground with unknown migration fate for future generations, like a toxic waste time bomb (exempt from Superfund, don’t forget);
* Risk ruination of our water supplies with fracking chemicals (once ruined not able to be remediated);
* Risk contamination of rivers, streams and aquifers;
* Risk the chance of major storms, tornadoes and flooding in the era of climate change spreading produced water and fracking chemicals all over watersheds and wetlands;
* Increase air pollution not only in the well pad area but in diesel exhaust containing benzene and other nasty ingredients trailed throughout our local communities where our children play and pregnant mothers sit in parks, emanating from hundreds of heavy-duty truck trips over narrow country roads to and from each well multiplied by at least 40,000 wells in NY state and many more than 50,000 or more wells in PA, with these kinds of massive numbers blanketed across 34 states (See Dr. Theo Colborn’s research on endocrine disruption
throughout the shale industrial zone);
* Disruption of wildlife habitats;
* Sound pollution and light pollution from well rig sites;
* Withdrawal of millions of gallons of water for each frack job in an era of increasing climate change with increasing periods of draught, just as clean, fresh water is becoming more scarce globally and here in the US;
* (This is a partial list -- go here to find "Our Teachers
" list of links in right column for lots more info on environmental and health impacts of shale gas drilling).
Is it worth all the above risks and sure damages to proceed headlong with the shale gas boom when we could politically insist that jobs be focused in sustainable energy? "Shale Country" is a false model created by Chesapeake Energy's Orwellianly named Clean Skies to take advantage of the economic desperation of rural farmers and ranchers. We can do better.
This is a political question.
Our public comment to EPA was, in part, as follows:
Based on what we know so far, the EPA should order immediate suspension of high-volume hydrofracking until your study is complete. Let science guide policy. Otherwise we’re conducting a massive human, animal and earth experiment. The gas will be there; it's not going away. Ideally any further carbon extraction at all should be banned while we accelerate development of sustainables but since that's probably not in the cards politically, it's imperative we at least do everything we can to reduce the harm we are doing to ourselves and our environment by extending our carbon binge in shale gas extraction. As others have mentioned, I especially urge you to incorporate into your study the research of Prof. Robert Howarth and his team at Cornell on the methane greenhouse footprint that makes shale gas look nearly as dirty as coal if not even worse.
Notably, a recent EPA rule requires gas producers to report amounts of methane vented into the atmosphere, but I notice this rule does not require these methane releases to be controlled. They should be controlled – and tightly. Perhaps low gas prices give gas companies little incentive to invest in technology to control or recover vented methane but that doesn't mean we have to accept this situation. Just because they can afford to waste gas in venting doesn't mean we can afford the resulting exacerbation of greenhouse effect, global warming and climate change. If shale gas producers have to go back to the drawing board to invent a new drilling method that avoids releasing methane into drinking water wells and from there to be vented into the atmosphere to avoid explosion, then not only for the sake of our drinking water but for the sake of our climate, by all means send them back to the drawing board.
If we gather the political will, we can accelerate the transition to green energy alternatives. The "bridge" beyond coal and oil is not yet another carbon fuel which keeps us in the carbon era and doesn’t get us anywhere while greatly increasing greenhouse. The true bridge is insulation, conservation and efficiency (which sound boring and cost relatively little) together with fast-tracking massive investment in solar and wind to bring down the “cost per.” Solarizing the entire federal government and military would make photovoltaic price competitive with carbon fuels for electricity and heating -- an old idea. There are all sorts of ideas. But as I said, it’s a political problem, not a technological one. It's a matter of public will and helping average people understand what's at stake for the future while in the midst of economic crisis. It's hard to get their attention but we have to.
Big Energy has the financial resources to control the PR and the media debate. Natural gas and its chief component, the greenhouse menace methane, are invisible, so we have our work cut out for us trying to get people to pay attention to what amounts to a seemingly hypothetical problem. Reminds me of the old days with nukes, nuclear energy and plutonium in space – radiation is invisible. That’s what we have scientists for, if we can keep them independent. Let independent science guide policy.
We await the Howarth Report from Cornell.
[Cross-posted at Public Comment]