Fracking doesn’t reduce global warming — it makes it worse


So the original take on fracking for natural gas was that it was good for the environment, for one simple reason — natural gas is a cleaner fuel than what it normally replaces, particularly coal which is rich in carbon emissions. In other words, they told us that more fracking meant fewer greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. Even with a flood of disturbing reports that fracking was polluting rural wells, creating radioactive wastewater and that the process even seemed to be causing an epidemic of earthquakes, this was the mantra — that the ecological benefits of unconventional gas drilling still outweighed any harm.

But a couple of years ago, researchers began to take note of a problem that undercut the entire case for fracking. Data showed that the drilling process was releasing much larger than predicted quantities of methane into the atmosphere. That was alarming because methane is actually a more potent greenhouse gas — that is, more effective in trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere — than carbon dioxide from coal and other fossil fuels. Now, researchers from Cornell University are putting an exclamation point in the seriousness of this problem:

It seems a large percentage of oil and gas wells tapping the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania are leaking methane gas, either into the air or into underground sources of drinking water.

That’s the finding of an analysis conducted by a Cornell University-led research team and published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team looked at compliance reports for more than 41,000 conventional and unconventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. It determined that unconventional gas wells in northeastern Pennsylvania had a nearly three-fold higher risk of leaking, compared to conventional wells in the same region.

One possible factor for this so-called “methane migration,” according to the study, could be “compromised structural integrity” in the casings and cement used in the unconventional oil and gas wells.

That’s a major concern. Shoddy construction of the well casing doesn’t just means that too much methane is leaking, but it also may explain some of the pollution of drinking wells that has been taking place in Pennsylvania, Texas, and elsewhere.

“In a typical well, hundreds of bags of cement are mixed and injected,” Anthony Ingraffea, one of the study’s lead authors and a Cornell professor of civil and environmental engineering, told the University’s Cornell Chronicle news site.

“If the water-to-cement mixture ratio isn’t right, you have problems,” he said. “With too much water, the cement shrinks. With too little water, the mixture dries too fast.”

And it’s not just Pennsylvania. In North Dakota’s Bakken Field, officials say too much gas is being flared off — with negative consequences for the environment:

North Dakota is cracking down on flaring that increases air pollution and also casts a glow in the night sky that can be seen miles away from remote well sites. Oil companies routinely burn off gas that emerges along with crude from wells when local pipelines or demand are insufficient to absorb the fuel.

The bottom line is this: The more the world learns about fracking, the less it makes much sense. We need to take drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gases — that includes killing the Keystone XL pipeline project, and blocking the flow of extra dirty oil from the Canadian tar sands.

It’s true that fracking has kept the price of natural gas low; in fact, Big Oil and Gas wants to frack here on American soil and ship the fuel overseas — which means that we take on all the environmental risk while energy millionaires accept all the profits. That’s not right. There are renewable forms of energy that will reduce our risk of global warming — and that’s the way we need to go.

For more information about the Cornell report on methane pollution from fracking rigs, please read:

To read more about the problems with gas flaring in North Dakota, check out:

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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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