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Fracked Gas Speeds Climate Crash; Extreme Flaring Adds to Greenhouse Emissions

November 28, 2011

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, widely admired for her integrity, seriousness and effectiveness when it comes to regulating coal, appears to be behind on current research when it comes to the life-cycle environmental impacts of fracked gas.

During a recent interview with Rachel Maddow, Jackson touted the “immediate benefits” of gas for pollution and energy security.  However, the most recent report from the International Energy Agency says that our climate future will be determined in the next 5 years. So we must actually consider climate impacts to be key among the acute, or “immediate” impacts from fracking for natural gas.

On November 22nd, Alex Smith took a look at new research by climate scientists Dr. Drew Shindell and by Dr. Robert Howarth of Cornell, concluding:

The results are startling. In the short-term, escaped methane from gas fracking threaten to tip us into catastrophic climate change. The total impact of the shale gas industry may be worse than coal. In the United States, where thousands and thousands of new gas wells are drilled, almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions may come from methane. The “natural” gas industry is the largest single source of methane emissions.

New research by Dr. Shindell shows that in the first 20 years, methane is 105 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. And, Smith explains,

Even at 100 years, Shindell finds methane is combining with other air pollution to generate an impact 33 times more powerful than CO2. Not 21, as determined in the 1990’s by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC. That old figure is still being used by industry and governments. Expect a change as Shindell becomes the new lead author of this section in the upcoming  IPCC.

Back to Lisa Jackson’s comments. On the Rachel Maddow show, she said, “as an environmentalist, I actually think natural gas is important to our country.” We suspect that is not because of the actual facts about fracking, but rather simply because Jackson has been so intensely, and rightly, focused on doing away with mountaintop removal and otherwise reining in the terrible impacts of coal mining on water quality, air pollution, and human health. She’s doing a fantastic job on that and weathering withering attacks from the right with aplomb. We need to give her strong backup on all that, along with a message:

Energy Conservation Emergency

Extreme energy extraction methods — Tar Sands extraction, mountaintop removal, high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling (gas fracking), and deep ocean drilling — are all unacceptable. The answer is not to favor one form of extreme, and extremely profitable in the short run, fossil fuel extraction over another. The answer is to live differently now. We are living in an energy conservation emergency which escalates daily. Pretending that fracking is somehow “beneficial” allows us to fantasize  otherwise.

To take a peek at just one aspect of fracking greenhouse gas impacts, flaring from fracking operations in Pennsylvania (see photos here) is extreme. Flaring is allowed to go on for two weeks, per frack, per well, 24/7, pouring vast amounts of carbon into the sky and wasting the very gas mega-corporations have gone to such extremes to frack. In North Dakota it’s even more extreme: over 35% of all methane extracted by fracking is wasted, the Financial Channel reports today.

Acute impacts are bad; cumulative impacts are worse. Unfortunately for Lisa Jackson’s “soft on fracking” approach, it’s not possible to find some faucet to turn off the cumulative impacts a few years after each frack job. That faucet doesn’t exist when it comes to poisons in air, water, land and our bodies; bioaccumulation escalates over time. And when it comes to climate, because of feedback loops, the damage escalates towards global scorching. Extreme weather events are escalating already: dry areas and droughts become more extreme while wet areas and periods also become more extreme, because warming air holds more moisture (which itself contributes to warming). There is no “off” switch to stop the climate impacts from any one frack job, let alone 20,000 or 100,000.

One Comment
  1. November 29, 2011 2:56 pm

    amen!

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