Natural Gas, Methane, Global Warming  Presentation by Robert Howarth, David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology, Cornell University for the Global Advisory Group of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, Jan 28, 2014, New York

Professor Howarth presented the main findings of research conducted by himself and other leading scientists on the levels of methane generated by fracking, leaking pipes, and gas heating systems.  Given the ‘global warming potential’ of methane is far higher than carbon dioxide per molecule released, the impact on the earth’s climate is likely to be faster and more serious.

A  recent draft paper produced by Cornell Global Labor Institute noted:

Per molecule, the global warming potential of methane is far higher than that of CO2, 34 times stronger as a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over a 100-year time scale, and 86 times more powerful over a 20-year time frame, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on climate Change (IPCC).[1]  Methane leakage levels of just 1.5%-3% of gas harvested would erase all of the GHG-related benefits of using gas instead of coal.[2]

A number of studies by top scientists suggest that methane leakage rates from shale gas drilling have been seriously underestimated. The work of Robert W. Howarth ay Cornell University, and Drew Shindell and Gabrielle Pétron at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, supports this conclusion. Howarth’s study reported that 75% of wells sampled within 1 kilometer of gas drilling in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania were contaminated with methane.[3] Most recently, a comprehensive atmospheric study released in November 2013 by a team led by Scot M. Miller of Harvard University’s Earth and Planetary Sciences claims that, based on methane measurements in south-central United States, the oil and gas industries may be emitting nearly five times the methane that had previously been estimated by the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR).[4] These studies have to some extent dispelled the better-than-coal “bridge fuel” status of shale gas and mainstream environmental organizations seem to be adjusting their positions accordingly.

How important is fugitive methane from a climate change perspective? According to Howarth and Shindell, fugitive methane from shale gas drilling will produce between 21% and 52% more emissions over a 20-year time frame than coal for the same amount of energy generated. These scientists have predicted that unless emissions of methane (and black carbon) are reduced immediately, the Earth will warm to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 and to 2.0 degrees Celsius by 2045 to 2050 whether or not carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. However, reducing methane (and black carbon) emissions, even if carbon dioxide is not controlled, would significantly slow the rate of global warming and postpone reaching the 1.5 degree Celsius and 2.0 degrees Celsius thresholds by 12 to 15 years.

The recent findings about the methane leakage from shale gas and its serious climate change impacts, on top of fracking’s impact on water and local communities, make it clear that shale gas is not a sustainable energy option—quite the opposite. Currently, many anti-fracking activists are either unaware of the fugitive methane issue or regard it to have limited potential to organize resistance at the local level.  But this could change as more in known about methane’s global warming potential and large green organizations and NGOs turn away from the ‘bridge fuel’ perspective.

 



[1] World Meteorological Organization, UNEP. “Climate Change 2013; The Physical Science Basis.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, n.d. Web. Retrieved 12/13/13 from: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

[2] Alvarez, Ramon A., Stephen W. Pacala, James J. Winebrake, and William L. Chameides. “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America. 109.17 (2012): 6435-6440. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <http://www.pnas.org/content/109/17/6435>.

[3] Robert Howarth et al., Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations: A letter, April 12, 2011. http://www.springerlink.com/content/e384226wr4160653/fulltext.pdf; Lovett, Richard A. ” Study Revises Estimate of Methane Leaks from U.S. Fracking Fields Leaks are minimal during removal of fracking fluids but increase once gas is flowing.” Scientific American. (2013): n. page. Print. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=study-revises-estimate-of-methane-leaks-from-us-fracking-fields; Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al..” Climactic Change. N.p., 10 Jan 2012. Web. 13 Dec 2013. <http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/publications/Howarthetal2012_Final.pdf>.

[4] Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) (2010): n.pag. Web. 13 Dec 2013. <http://themasites.pbl.nl/tridion/en/themasites/edgar/>.

Miller, Scot M., Steven C. Wofsy, Anna M. Michalak, et al. “Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America. (2013): n. page. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/11/20/1314392110.abstract>.