Our leaders thought fracking would save our climate – ‘Methane emissions are substantially higher than we’ve understood’Posted by Jim at Wednesday, April 06, 2016
By Bill McKibben
23 March 2016
(The Nation) – Global warming is, in the end, not about the noisy political battles here on the planet’s surface. It actually happens in constant, silent interactions in the atmosphere, where the molecular structure of certain gases traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. If you get the chemistry wrong, it doesn’t matter how many landmark climate agreements you sign or how many speeches you give. And it appears the United States may have gotten the chemistry wrong. Really wrong.
There’s one greenhouse gas everyone knows about: carbon dioxide, which is what you get when you burn fossil fuels. We talk about a “price on carbon” or argue about a carbon tax; our leaders boast about modest “carbon reductions.” But in the last few weeks, CO2’s nasty little brother has gotten some serious press. Meet methane, otherwise known as CH4.
In February, Harvard researchers published an explosive paper in Geophysical Research Letters. Using satellite data and ground observations, they concluded that the nation as a whole is leaking methane in massive quantities. Between 2002 and 2014, the data showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of an enormous spike in methane in the entire planet’s atmosphere.
To the extent our leaders have cared about climate change, they’ve fixed on CO2. Partly as a result, coal-fired power plants have begun to close across the country. They’ve been replaced mostly with ones that burn natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane. Because burning natural gas releases significantly less carbon dioxide than burning coal, CO2 emissions have begun to trend slowly downward, allowing politicians to take a bow. But this new Harvard data, which comes on the heels of other aerial surveys showing big methane leakage, suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities. And molecule for molecule, this unburned methane is much, much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
The EPA insisted this wasn’t happening, that methane was on the decline just like CO2. But it turns out, as some scientists have been insisting for years, the EPA was wrong. Really wrong. This error is the rough 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.
These leaks are big enough to wipe out a large share of the gains from the Obama administration’s work on climate change—all those closed coal mines and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, it’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years. The methane story is utterly at odds with what we’ve been telling ourselves, not to mention what we’ve been telling the rest of the planet. It undercuts the promises we made at the climate talks in Paris. It’s a disaster—and one that seems set to spread. […]
To understand how we got here, it’s necessary to remember what a savior fracked natural gas looked like to many people, environmentalists included. As George W. Bush took hold of power in Washington, coal was ascendant, here and around the globe. Cheap and plentiful, it was most visibly underwriting the stunning growth of the economy in China, where, by some estimates, a new coal-fired power plant was opening every week. The coal boom didn’t just mean smoggy skies over Beijing; it meant the planet’s invisible cloud of carbon dioxide was growing faster than ever, and with it the certainty of dramatic global warming.
So lots of people thought it was great news when natural-gas wildcatters began rapidly expanding fracking in the last decade. Fracking involves exploding the sub-surface geology so that gas can leak out through newly opened pores; its refinement brought online new shale deposits across the continent—most notably the Marcellus Shale, stretching from West Virginia up into Pennsylvania and New York. The quantities of gas that geologists said might be available were so vast that they were measured in trillions of cubic feet and in centuries of supply.
The apparently happy fact was that when you burn natural gas, it releases half as much carbon dioxide as coal. A power plant that burned natural gas would therefore, or so the reasoning went, be half as bad for global warming as a power plant that burned coal. Natural gas was also cheap—so, from a politician’s point of view, fracking was a win-win situation. You could appease the environmentalists with their incessant yammering about climate change without having to run up the cost of electricity. It would be painless environmentalism, the equivalent of losing weight by cutting your hair. […]
Here’s the unhappy fact about methane: Though it produces only half as much carbon as coal when you burn it, if you don’t—if it escapes into the air before it can be captured in a pipeline, or anywhere else along its route to a power plant or your stove—then it traps heat in the atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. Howarth and Ingraffea began producing a series of papers claiming that if even a small percentage of the methane leaked—maybe as little as 3 percent—then fracked gas would do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that leak rates could be at least that high: that somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale-drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere. […]
That’s why last month’s Harvard study came as such a shock. It used satellite data from across the country over a span of more than a decade to demonstrate that US methane emissions had spiked 30 percent since 2002. The EPA had been insisting throughout that period that methane emissions were actually falling, but it was clearly wrong—on a massive scale. In fact, emissions “are substantially higher than we’ve understood,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy admitted in early March. The Harvard study wasn’t designed to show why US methane emissions were growing—in other parts of the world, as new research makes clear, cattle and wetlands seem to be causing emissions to accelerate. But the spike that the satellites recorded coincided almost perfectly with the era when fracking went big-time. [more]
ABSTRACT: he global burden of atmospheric methane has been increasing over the past decade, but the causes are not well understood. National inventory estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicate no significant trend in U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions from 2002 to present. Here we use satellite retrievals and surface observations of atmospheric methane to suggest that U.S. methane emissions have increased by more than 30% over the 2002–2014 period. The trend is largest in the central part of the country, but we cannot readily attribute it to any specific source type. This large increase in U.S. methane emissions could account for 30–60% of the global growth of atmospheric methane seen in the past decade.