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THE U.S. SHIFT TO NATURAL GAS

A THREAT TO LIFE ON THE PLANET?

(METHANE WAS A TRIGGER IN THE PERMIAN EXTINCTION.)

IMAGE: U.S. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION

During the former Obama Administration, there was a tremendous push to replace coal with natural gas. And now natural gas has become the number one source of electricity generation in the United States. (EIA) The problem with natural gas is that it is composed primarily of methane. While methane, as a greenhouse gas, may not stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide, it can trap much more heat than carbon dioxide and its near-term effect is much more damaging. The consensus is that methane can trap 20-30 times more heat than carbon dioxide.   In other words it's far more destructive in the short term.

What is also terrifying to consider, is that it was ultimately the emissions of methane that helped kick-start the Permian Extinction, an event that killed 90% of the life on the planet (The Independent).

So this is a threat that is very real, and should be taken very seriously. There needs to be more regulation of the fracking process and monitoring of emissions. We should even be considering a methane tax.

Yet there have been few more enthusiastic cheerleaders for the shift away from "dirty" coal to "natural" gas than the former president, Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Up until recently, this shift appeased the environmentalists in their desire to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas has even been treated as a "renewable energy" source along with solar and wind power. Natural gas also seemed like a political winner because it is a cheap source of local, American based energy. Many agreed that natural gas would reduce the need for dependence on foreign oil and create jobs here at home. And it has frequently been quoted that America supposedly has enough natural gas reserves to last "100 year". So it seemed there were many politically sound reasons to begin the shift away from coal to fracking. And while people focused on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, they ignored the potentially larger threat of methane emissions from natural gas.

In addition to the Obama presidency, the current Trump presidency is also looking to promote fracking, and even lower already low regulations. On his twitter, Trump stated, "Fracking will lead to American energy independence. With price of natural gas continuing to drop, we can be at a tremendous advantage." Trump has also proposed to completely repeal Obama-era standards governing hydraulic fracturing on federal land (The Hill, 7-24-17).

Yet is fracking and natural gas truly a better alternative to coal when it comes to the problem of global warming? Fracking is often considered cleaner than coal because it is believed to release half as much carbon dioxide when it is burned in power plants. Thus the logic was that natural gas would be "half" as harmful as coal. However, natural gas is primarily composed of methane, which may leak into the atmosphere during and after production. Various studies by academics, the government, and industry believe that methane leakage can range from 1 percent to almost 12 percent of the natural gas produced each year [1]. Although there is still much that is unknown about this subject and demands a deeper level of research and scrutiny.

Many studies have come out calling the shift to fracking in question, including this Harvard study.

When former president Obama started to encourage the use of fracking and natural gas, the EPA supported this decision, and even published a fact sheet showing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in decline from 2005 and onward. (EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014). The logic behind this was that methane had a shorter duration in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. While methane stays in the atmosphere for decades, carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for centuries. So when the data was plotted on a 100 year time line, methane looked like the more viable option in the long-term. Thus, natural gas was hailed as the "bridge to the future." Yet the fact that was not taken into account is that methane has a much higher potential for trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, as we mentioned above, about 20-30 times higher according to most sources. However, Cornell climate scientist  Robert Howarth says a more accurate figure is 86 to 105 higher. (The Nation). So with this fact taken into account, it is possible that the Obama driven economic shift away from "dirty" coal to "clean" natural gas may not have been such a clean solution after all. It is possible that America's contribution to global warming gas emissions may have increased, not decreased, under the Obama presidency. And according to the Harvard study, US methane emissions increased by 30-60 percent during the Obama presidency.


PREVIOUS EPA ESTIMATES OF METHANE EMISSIONS

VS POSSIBLE WORST SCENARIO

(Chart Source: The Nation)

 

(Chart Source: The Nation)

The EPA previously estimated that carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions were on the decline. But if the information released by the Harvard study is true, then it is possible that green house gas emissions could have increased from 2005.


THE TREMENDOUS SUPPORT FOR FRACKING DURING THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION

A key example of Obama's support for natural gas can be seen in his 2014, State of the Union Address.

"One of the reasons why is natural gas – if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.  Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas.  I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.  My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities.  And while we’re at it, I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations (White House)."

More is outlined in the former president's Climate Action Plan (White house PDF).

Obama's Climate Action Plan received vocal support from the EPA as well as key environmentalist groups such as The Sierra Club. The Sierra Club executive Carl Pope took $25 million from one of the nation's biggest frackers, Chesapeake Energy, and even made appearances with the company's CEO to tout the advantages of gas as “an excellent example of a fuel that can be produced in quite a clean way, and shouldn’t be wasted.”

Robert Kennedy Jr., who had enormous credibility as the founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance and a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote a paean in 2009 to the “revolution…over the past two years [that] has left America awash in natural gas and has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal practically overnight.”

Fracking was also hailed as a solution by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. And much political work was done to not only expand the fracking industry here at home, but to promote the process abroad as well. When Hillary Clinton took over the State Department, she set up a special arm, the Bureau of Energy Resources, after close consultation with oil and gas executives. This bureau, with its 63 employees, was soon helping sponsor conferences around the world. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks even showed that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton played an active role as a broker for the shale-gas industry, twisting the arms of world leaders - such as in Bulgaria to make sure that US firms got to frack at will.

So now because of all of this, the US is leading the world in the natural-gas age, and is the number one country contributing to methane emissions around the globe.


HARVARD STUDY CALLS NATURAL GAS INTO QUESTION

As we mentioned above, a study from Harvard has called the success of Obama's "natural gas" economy into question. The study has found that the global emissions of methane have been increasing, not decreasing, from 2005 and onward. The data showed that between 2002-2014, US methane emissions increased by 30-60 percent. So what this potentially means is that the information published by the EPA and the Obama Administration may have been completely inaccurate. As The Nation stated, an error such as this could be the equivalent of "the New York Stock Exchange announcing tomorrow that the Dow Jones isn’t really at 17,000: Its computer program has been making a mistake, and your index fund actually stands at 11,000." This could completely undercut the US promises made at Climate Talks in Paris.

Now, we will point out that the Harvard study is not the only one to document this fact. The Harvard study is also not an "official study". It is just the latest in a series of studies that has been calling the whole practice of fracking into question. However, around March 2016, the EPA did revise its methane calculations and admit that it was wrong about its previous estimates, now saying that the US needs to do more to curb its methane emissions (EPA).


THE DANGERS OF FRACKING

Last year it was confirmed by the U.S. government that fracking causes earth quakes. Yet if that's not bad enough, the list of fracking's deadly by-products is growing longer and more alarming.

As we mentioned above in this report, one of the chief problems of fracking is that it releases methane. Yet this methane doesn't just go into the atmosphere. During the fracking process, methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out from the well and contaminate nearby groundwater. The contaminated water is often used for drinking water by the local community. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination near fracking areas, as well as cases of sensory, respiratory and neurological damage caused by the contaminated water. Some of this water has even become flammable. In 2011, the New York Times reported that it obtained thousands of internal documents from the EPA, state regulators and fracking companies, which revealed that the "the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle." (New York Times). “We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste."

This process is also a tremendous waste of water. More than 90 percent of the water used in a fracking well never returns to the surface. Since this water is permanently removed from the water cycle, this is bad news for drought-afflicted areas such as Arkansas, California, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Texas and Wyoming. "We don't want to look up 20 years from now and say 'Oops we used all our water,' says Jason Banes of the Boulder, Colorado-based Western Resource Advocates." The redirection of water supplies to fracking not only causes water prices to spike, but also reduces the amount of water available for crops.

If this isn't bad enough, the waste fluid left over from the fracking process is left in open-air pits to evaporate, which releases dangerous, volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain and ground-level ozone. Exposure to diesel particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide and volatile hydrocarbons can lead to a host of health problems, such as asthma, headaches, high blood pressure, anemia, heart attacks and cancer. It can also have a damaging effect on immune and reproductive systems, as well as fetal and child development. A 2014 study conducted by the Colorado Department of Environmental and Occupational Health found that mothers who live near fracking sites are 30 percent more likely to have babies with congenital heart disease.

More of the dangerous side effects of fracking can be read about here.


WHAT TO DO?

At minimum there needs to be a massive increase in monitoring all aspects of fracking and the natural gas industry.   Leaks must be detected and stopped.   But this is a much more arduous task than people may think. Fracking involves exploding the sub-surface geology of the Earth so that gas can leak out through newly opened pores. Cornell Scientists  Howarth and Ingraffea have even produced a series of papers claiming that even if a small percentage of the methane leaked - maybe as little as 3 percent - then fracked gas would still do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that current leaks of methane gas from shale drilling could currently be 3.6-7.9 percent. Given that this gas is odorless and colorless, this leakage is very difficult to monitor, detect and fix (The Nation).


LINKS

Bill McKibben, The Nation, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Chemistry"

Methane is worse than Carbon Dioxide. Methane production has increased due to the use of Natural Gas, the increased use of fracking, closing Coal plants. Methane has increased under Obama. EPA information has been dead wrong.

Duke Study on Shale Gas and Fracking (Duke, February 2017)

A large increase in U.S. methane emissions over the past decade inferred from satellite data and surface observations (AGU Publications, 3-2-16) Harvard Study

EPA's Study of Hydraulic Fracturing and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources (EPA 2016)

EPA Support for Former President Obama's Climate Action Plan   Fact Sheet PDF

EPA insists that fracking and the president's plan is the way to go.

The President's Climate Action Plan (White House)

EPA: Admits Natural Gas Methane Connection


NEWS STORIES ON FRACKING AND METHANE

NATURAL GAS BECOMES NUMBER ONE SOURCE OF ENERGY GENERATION IN UNITED STATES

Natural gas becomes number one source of U.S. power generation in 2016 (U.S. Energy Information Administration)


DONALD TRUMP AND FRACKING

Trump administration seeks to repeal Obama fracking rule (The Hill, 7-24-17)

Trump to repeal Obama fracking rule (The Hill, 3-15-17)

Trump Support for Fracking (Twitter)


METHANE - A CONTRIBUTOR TO THE GREATEST MASS EXTINCTION EVENT IN  HISTORY

Earth's worst-ever mass extinction of life holds 'apocalyptic' warning about climate change, say scientists (The Independent, 3-24-17)


A METHANE TAX

Why now is the time to tax methane (Weforum)


THE IMPACT OF FRACKING

Do fracking activities cause earthquakes? Seismologists and the state of Oklahoma say yes (CBC News, 4-28-16)

Judge Orders SoCal Gas To Continue Paying For Displaced Porter Ranch Residents’ Temporary Housing (CBS News, 4-27-16)

California natural gas leak just one of thousands across country (PBS, 1-18-16)

Citizens Can Sue Fracking Companies for Earthquake Damage, Says Oklahoma Supreme Court (EcoWatch, 7-1-15)

Texas fracking site that spilled 42,000 gallons of fluid into residential area hopes to reopen (Reuters, 6-17-15)

8 Dangerous Side Effects of Fracking That the Industry Doesn't Want You to Hear About (Alternet, 4-28-15)

New Footage Reveals First Aerial View of Methane Leak Polluting Los Angeles County (EDF, 12-23-15) highlight EDF project

Substantial loss of natural gas on public lands (EDF, 2014)

Former Mobil VP Warns of Fracking and Climate Change (Truth Out, 7-19-13) 


[1] Anna Karion et al., "Methane emissions estimate from airborne measurements over a western United States natural gas field," Geophysical Research Letters, 2013.