Viewpoint: New study renews concerns over fracking and climate

Dr Doug Parr
Doug Parr is the chief scientist at Greenpeace
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

New work reported in Nature is suggesting that leakage from gas extraction via fracking is even higher than previously reported, throwing further doubt on any climate benefits of gas from this source – at least under the exploitation rules in USA.

The measurements - which have not been formally published or peer reviewed - have been done by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Preliminary results are from over the Uinta Basin of Utah - one of several areas in the U.S. where recent tight sands and shale gas exploration & development has been taking place.

The results indicate that rates of methane leakage up to an ‘eye-popping’ 9% of production - double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data. The significance of this higher number is that methane, the main component of natural gas, is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which would be the gas delivering  climate impact if the gas was burnt rather than emitted. Thus leakage of methane makes natural gas extraction much more impactful on the climate than if all mined gas was captured and burnt.

Analysis from Princeton and Environmental Defense Fund argued that:

"New natural gas power plants produce net climate benefits relative to efficient, new coal plants using ….on  all time frames as long as leakage in the natural gas system is less than 3.2% from well through delivery at a power plant."

Clearly a leakage level of 9% would be way beyond this level and questions the climate benefit value of unconventional gas.

Earlier measurements around Colorado of leakage rates form unconventional gas extraction had suggested leakage as high as 4% but had been rebuffed by industry and other sources including Michael Levi from the Council on Foreign relations who questioned the underlying assumptions of the research.  A recent MIT study – based on data relating to how companies handle fugitive emissions, found far lower leakage rates.

The NOAA research is significant, however, because of its reliance on atmospheric measurements but the new data remains unpublished and peer reviewed.

If confirmed, the  findings would strongly question whether unconventional gas has climate benefits unless there are, at a minimum, strong emissions controls.

In announcing the go-ahead for further exploratory fracking in UK, Secretary of State Ed Davey has said that in UK venting around shale gas extraction will not be allowed, and that

"Methane emissions will continue to be minimised."  

However at present there is limited clarity about where in the operational chain the fugitive emissions of gas in Colorado and Utah are coming from, how much it would cost to control, and the inspection and enforcement regime required to make it happen.

If this new research is confirmed, any climate change benefits from shale gas, now or in the future subject would remain to be confirmed.

Viewpoint pieces reflect the opinion or analysis of the author or their organisation. 

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