Another count in the indictment against fracking: It doesn’t stop climate change


In the field of environmental science, it’s always important to evaluate risk. In other words, do we tolerate a certain level of risk if the alternative is a wider ecological catastrophe? Over the last decade or two, for example, scientists have debated whether nuclear power plants — despite the danger of a major accident and release of radiation, as happened in Japan in 2011 — are still a better option for the environment because atomic power doesn’t create greenhouse gases. (My opinion is ‘no,’ but it’s an interesting debate.) But nothing has generated more controversy than the environmental costs and benefits of fracking.

If you read this blog — or any other environmental website — regularly, you know that major new damning evidence against unconventional gas drilling comes out on weekly basis, if not more frequently. The growing list includes increased earthquakes, well-water pollution from shoddy drilling practices, unhealthy air near drilling rigs, et cetera, et cetera. Just last week, I called a new report that fracking was robbing drought-parched California of much-needed water, then pumping the toxin-laced waste back into the aquifer, the most damning indictment yet.

But fracking advocates keep falling back on the same argument: That the surge in natural gas drilling is still a necessary “bridge” until the industrialized world can get more of its power from renewable sources such as wind, hydro and solar. To be sure, the rise in production of “cleaner” natural gas has greatly reduced pollution from coal, the type of power generation that creates the most severe carbon pollution. But when scientists look at the entire fracking process, from cradle-to-grave, they make a startling find: Unconventional gas drilling is NOT helping in the fight against climate change:

“The upshot is that abundant natural gas alone will not rescue us from climate change,” said Haewon McJeon, an economist at the US department of energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), who led the research. “[New] technology could double or triple the global natural gas production by 2050. But greenhouse gas emissions would continue to grow in the absence of climate policies that promote lower carbon energy sources.”

Abundant gas may have a lot of benefits, such as economic growth, cutting coal-related local air pollution and energy security, McJeon said, but slowing climate change is not one of them.

The new research involved teams of scientists from the US, Australia, Austria, Germany and Italy, who developed five independent computer models to assess how carbon emissions between now and 2050 would be affected by a global gas boom. The “integrated assessment” models included energy production and use, economic activity and the Earth’s climate system.

The researchers found an unrestricted gas boom could increase the use of the fuel by 170% by 2050, but that this could actually increase overall CO2 emissions. The impact of a gas boom on CO2 emissions ranged from a small cut of 2% to an increase of 11%.

“We were surprised how little difference abundant gas made to total greenhouse gas emissions, even though it was dramatically changing the global energy system,” said James Edmonds, also at PNNL. “All five modelling teams reported little difference in climate change.”

It’s a complicated issue, to be sure, but the reasons make sense when you think about them. For one thing, a surge in super-cheap natural gas will also all but certainly create a lack of urgency to replace that power with non-polluting wind or solar. What’s more, such inexpensive energy will lead to a rise in consumption; natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and low prices mean that we’ll be burning more of it. One other issue, which we’ve discussed here in the past, is that current production processes with fracking allow too much methane to escape into the atmosphere, and that is also a significant contributor to global warming.

With all the other scientific indictments of unconventional gas drilling, if you take away the climate-change argument, what do you have left?

Read the Guardian’s report on a new study about the climate-change risks of fracking:

My October 14 blog post about fracking pollution in California:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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