Reason No. 317 to be alarmed about fracking: It’s hot outside!


It was Bob Dylan who famously said that you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. In the summer of 2012, you don’t need a weatherman to know it’s hot out there. Heck, just open your front door. As someone who’s lived in New Orleans my entire life, I’ve seen some of the worst that summer has to offer — August nights when the streets of the French Quarter feel like a hot steaming bathtub. That said, it’s shocking to look at a weather map and see 107 degrees in St. Louis or triple-digits in the Upper Northwest — not to mention the heartbreaking wildfires burning through the Rocky Mountains.

When you see such weather extremes, it’s hard not think that the climatologists who’ve been warning us about man-made global warming are right on the money. It’s not that we haven’t seen heat waves before, but the higher record highs, taking place more often, have to what climate change would look like, right? Indeed, experts on the subject say evidence of global warming is exactly what we’re seeing:

“This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level,” said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in fire-charred Colorado, said these are the very record-breaking conditions he has said would happen, but many people wouldn’t listen. So it’s I told-you-so time, he said.

It’s funny — in one sense I rarely write directly about the issue of climate change here on the blog. But in another sense, almost every topic here has some connection — and usually a strong one — to the alarming rise in man-made global warming. After all, it’s our addiction to fossil fuels that not only drives the release of so many greenhouse gases but also led to BP’s reckless drilling in the waters off Louisiana, as well as many of the other environmentally abusive practices of Big Oil. It’s the same for fracking — hydraulic fracturing of the deep earth to drill for natural gas, another fossil fuel. Again, we’re talking about a risky drilling procedure, aimed at squeezing every last drop from the ground.

But there’s something else about fracking that doesn’t get as much publicity as it should: Scientists have found that the actual drilling technique is a net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and thus to the problem of global warming. How so?

Take the natural-gas extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing (Extra!, 2/12). Better known as “fracking,” the process involves cracking open underground rock layers containing oil and gas deposits by blasting them with a high-pressure chemical slurry. Of the many troubling side effects of fracking—which run from groundwater contamination to increased earthquake activity—one of the most worrisome is its impact on climate change.

Any drilling for fossil fuels means more carbon will eventually be released into the atmosphere, but fracking’s effect on climate is compounded by the fact that the drilling process can create huge methane leaks: A study by Cornell scientists Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea estimated that fracked wells leak 40 to 60 percent more methane than conventional wells (Scientific American, 1/20/12). Because methane is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, the National Center for Atmos-pheric Research has estimated that at these levels of leakage, switching from oil to natural gas consumption would significantly worsen global warming over the next several decades (Climate Progress, 9/9/11.

The author of this thoughtful piece, Neil deMause, notes that while the effects of fracking on local drinking water has been widely reported (and understandably so), pieces about the impact on global warming are rare. He does find this example:

One rare exception was an NPR Morning Edition story (5/17/12) by Elizabeth Shogren that followed a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who discovered a huge plume of methane north of Denver, ultimately tracing it to new fracking wells in northeastern Colorado. “We need to know a lot about methane itself, which is natural gas, if we’re worried about climate change,” energy consultant Sue Tierney told Shogren. “Fifty years from now, are we really going to be wondering if we really screwed up because we went on this big gas boom?” It’s a question that the media should be asking now, not half a century on.

Exactly. As America rushes headlong into this shotgun marriage with Big Gas, we really need to ask the hard questions — including the question about global warming. Maybe it’s a little easier to ask about these things when it’s 107 degrees in the shade.

Here’s a piece looking at the connections between this summer’s record heat and wildfires and climate change:

To read Neil deMause’s essay on fracking and the impact on global warming, go to:

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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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