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Opinion: Dirty Little Secret About Natural-Gas Fracking: Fugitive Methane Emissions

According to recent research, the global-warming impact of FMEs is two-thirds greater than coal’s over the near term

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

In energy circles, conventional wisdom holds that natural gas is the ideal clean and cheap “transition fuel.” TV ads tell us that gas is the bridge from the fading era of fossil fuels to a newly emerging sustainable future based on renewable energy (solar and wind).

Don't believe it.

As so often is the case, what passes as conventional wisdom turns out on closer inspection to be flat-out wrong or at best half true. In fact, available data and numerous studies now show that natural gas -- depending on its source -- can be as bad if not much worse for planetary health than coal, the usual nemesis.

When natural gas's impacts on the environment are measured only at the point of consumption, gas is both cheaper and cleaner than burning coal to produce electricity. As gas-industry advertisers intone, “natural gas has half the CO2 footprint of coal” or “clean-burning gas has half the carbon footprint of coal.”

True enough at the burner tip. But when gas is measured across the entire fuel cycle -- from drilling, extraction, and transmission through rapidly-built pipelines to the burner tip, a very different, and potentially ominous picture emerges.

The problems start with the production segment of the fuel cycle. Increasingly, new sources of gas come from fracking. This process drives chemicals and water through wells at very high pressure to split open (fracture) sedimentary rock, trapping gas fields that can be forced to the surface.

Fracking is rapidly becoming the new source of gas for New Jersey utilities, arriving here from hundreds of wells across Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale formations, where a frenzy of drilling is leading to hurried efforts to lay pipelines across both states, generating a great deal of opposition along the way.

Fracking can pollute local groundwater, residential wells, and waterways -- besides triggering earthquakes, as in Oklahoma – while also fouling the air. Much worse, however, the process releases fugitive methane emissions (FMEs), a major contributor to global warming and climate change that is threatening to everyone.

How bad is FME? Worse than burning coal in the near term. That’s because methane gas remains suspended in the atmosphere for “only” 10-20 years, compared with carbon dioxide), the major greenhouse gas by volume from coal, which stays airborne for a century or more.

When measured over a two-decade period, methane pollutants do far more climate damage than carbon. The estimates of FME impacts over that 10-20 year period vary from a low of 70 percent of coal (according to the natural-gas industry) to a high of 400 percent greater than the carbon footprint of coal, according to independent researchers at the NASA Goddard Space Institute. If we average the published estimates, natural gas has a global-warming footprint that’s 167 percent of coal’s -- or two thirds greater impact over the near term.

(There is a short informative video on methane and its role in global warming available online, featuring Dr. Drew Shindell, a leading climate scientist formerly with Goddard and now at Duke.)

And we should be very worried about the near-term consequences of unchecked global warming. According to a recent Harvard study, climate change is already here and intensifying all the time. Ocean levels have risen 8 inches over the past century, according to Shindell, but could rise by 10 feet or more if the vast ice shelves of Greenland and Antarctica collapse and melt, a very real possibility.

Increasingly, climate scientists are finding that these huge storehouses of ice at the North and South poles are approaching their tipping points, when humans can do nothing to prevent their melting and the worldwide flooding of coastlines that is sure to follow. According to some scientists, the immense West Antarctic ice sheet has already reached its tipping point, and will -- sooner rather than later -- cascade into the ocean.

These scary scenarios suggest we are living on borrowed time. And we are. As the cartoon character Pogo warned us, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” New Jersey is especially vulnerable to sea level rise; studies show that the coastline is subsiding, a double whammy for the Garden State as the coast sinks while the ocean rises.

What should policymakers be doing now to avert a watery world from flooding low-lying areas, coastal cities and suburbs, here and around the globe?

First priority is to curtail emissions of global-warming pollutants. This includes methane or FME from fracking. To do that, we need a moratorium on new pipelines planned for New Jersey at least until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) -- which has jurisdiction over interstate pipelines -- prepares an environmental impact statement (EIS) that examines the cumulative impact of fracking and natural gas, the new fuel of choice in electric-power generation, which may be holding down utility rates even as it increasingly warms the planet.

Second, we need to invest heavily and swiftly in energy efficiency. That means the governor -- aided and abetted by the Legislature -- must stop treating the Clean Energy Fund as if it's an ATM to help balance the state budget. Over the past few years almost $1 billion in clean energy funds, paid for through a small surcharge on gas and electric bills, have been diverted in this manner

Third, let’s develop the full potential for solar and wind energy in New Jersey. The Renewable Energy Transition Act (RETA), pending in both houses of the Legislature, calls for substituting efficiency and renewables for 80 percent of our power generation by 2050, an ambitious goal already being surpassed in much of northern Europe.

R. William Potter is a partner in the Princeton-based law firm Potter and Dickson. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or any client.

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