It’s a gas! Why fracking doesn’t help climate change


Everybody needs to vent sometimes, right? That’s certainly true for someone like me, a veteran environmental attorney who’s had more than my share of frustrations in dealing with Big Oil, their high-priced lawyers, and the politicians who receive huge wads of campaign cash. It helps to have a blog to get things off my chest. But I’ll tell you one thing that doesn’t need to vent!

Fracking rigs.

There’s yet another study out about the high rate of methane leaks — venting — from unconventional oil and gas wells, and it’s high time that our policy makers pay attention to this important research. I’d even say it’s the last nail in the coffin for the fracking boom in America, but then that’s also what I’ve said that in the past about earthquakes, water pollution and other issues. The relentless spin machine of Big Oil has a way of shaking off bad news.

When it comes to the methane leaks, remember the biggest argument that fracking supporters make. They say that the process remains — on balance — very good for the environment, even if you acknowledge that fracking has issues around pollution, earthquakes, huge rates of water usage, et cetera. And there’s no disputing the central point of their argument — which is that natural gas, when burned instead of coal or other, dirtier fossil fuels, is a short-term upgrade when it comes to curbing pollution, including greenhouse gases. But new research is now showing that there’s a massive hole in that argument:

Natural gas has been touted as an environmentally friendly substitute to coal and oil production, but a new report estimates enough gas is leaking to negate most of the climate benefits of process.

The report, commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and carried out by environmental consulting group ICF International, estimated the amount of leaks from natural gas and oil production on federal and tribal land in the US. It also looked at venting and flaring, processes in which drilling sites purposefully let gas go into the atmosphere for a variety of reasons – usually for safety.

The claim that natural gas is environmentally friendly hinges on how much methane leaks into the atmosphere during the production process. But the EDF report adds weight to those who say methane leaks at natural gas sites can make the process nearly or as carbon-intensive as coal.

The EDF found that 65bn cubic feet of natural gas was released into the air on federal and tribal lands in 2013 – amounting to about $360m of lost gas. That, the EDF says, is not only an economic loss, but an environmental problem. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over short periods of time and 30 times more potent over the long term.

The leaks are the equivalent to the greenhouse gases produced by 5.6m cars.

If fracking is actually making climate change even worse, then there is truly no reason, from an environmental or national energy policy standpoint, to continue with the process. Instead, the sole argument for fracking then becomes a monetary one: Millionaires and billionaires who’ve invested in land rights or in rigs and who’ve seen huge profits during the energy boom want to keep the party going. That’s not nearly a good enough justification. New York and Maryland have shown that it’s possible to impose a flat-out ban on fracking, and hopefully the new scientific case against unconventional drilling will spread soon to other jurisdictions. We’re already too far down the road toward catastrophic changes in the world’s climate.

Read more about the new research on fracking, methane leaks, and climate change at:

I also make the argument against fracking in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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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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