What if fracking is even worse than we thought?


Posting negative headlines about fracking has become pretty much a regular weekly occurrence around here. A lot of that is the result of science; it’s taken researchers a number of years to catch up with the newer technologies in oil and gas drilling. As they do, impartial academics are learning that the pollution problems that come with fracking have been understated, while the benefits have been overhyped.

That’s important, because with President Obama releasing the administration’s new power-plant regulations this week, it’s clear that natural gas from fracking — which burns cleaner than coal — remains an integral part of the program, for now. The concern is that fracking for natural gas has other negative side effects — most notably, methane leaks at the drilling pad, which then become a direct pipeline of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A number of recent scientific papers have suggested this is a serious problem, but this week came a bombshell new development:

A device commonly used to measure the methane that leaks from industrial sources may greatly underestimate those emissions, said an inventor of the technology that the device relies on.

The claim, published Tuesday in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, suggests that the amount of escaped methane, a potent greenhouse gas, could be far greater than accepted estimates from scientists, industry and regulators.

The new paper focuses on a much-heralded report sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and published by University of Texas researchers in 2013; that report is part of a major effort to accurately measure the methane problem. But if the supposed flaws are borne out, the finding could also have implications for all segments of the natural gas supply chain, with ripple effects on predictions of the rate of climate change, and for efforts and policies meant to combat it.

Almost all of the methane leakage calculated from the Texas research “could be affected by this measurement failure,” according to the paper; “their study appears to have systematically underestimated emissions.” The new paper describes a pattern of low measurements of leaks by the Bacharach Hi Flow Sampler, a device approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for its required monitoring of natural gas facilities and in use around the world.

A couple of things are worth noting here. First of all, the main source of the new information here is a long-time gas industry consultant, not some environmentalist with an ideological axe to grind on the matter. Also, the research paper said that some of the mistakes may be sizable, meaning that the federal EPA and other experts may have severely underestimated the amount of methane leakage.

It really seems as if the debate over fracking — if it even is still a debate — has reached a kind of a tipping point. Also this week, the conservative Republican governor of Oklahoma — hugely indebted to Big Oil and Gas — is finally siding with the public and pushing back against fracking disposal methods linked to earthquakes in her state. But this damning now link between fracking, greenhouse gases and climate change really could be the final blow.

Read more about the under-reporting of methane from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/science/methane-leaks-may-greatly-exceed-estimates-report-says.html

For more on the risks of fracking, check out my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© 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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