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Methane leakage from fracking: bridge to nowhere or opportunity?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Whenever I read a study that quantifies or identifies environmental hazards of fracking, I see it as evidence and data in support of stricter regulations and an opportunity for technical solutions rather than a reason to pull the plug.

One of the primary environmental and climate issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing is the amount of methane that leaks out into the atmosphere instead of going on to processing and eventually electricity or heat. Methane by itself in the atmosphere is a bad thing for the climate as it traps more heat than regular carbon dioxide (more or less depending on how long it stays in the atmosphere).

Last month, a study was published in Geophysical Research Letters that measured methane leakage rates over Uintah County, Utah. The study found that for the test site, 6 to 12 percent of methane leaked to the atmosphere (researchers suggest keeping the rate under 2 percent).

Methane leakage picked visible with an infrared camera

In a discussion of these results Joe Romm at Climate Progress says that “fracking is looking more and more like a bridge to nowhere” while Chris Tackett at Treehugger says “the case against natural gas as a wise way to transition away from coal or oil is getting stronger and stronger.”

I agree that, if left unresolved, the case for switching from coal to natural unravels rather quickly. Practically, it doesn’t make sense for a business or industry to toss out a sizeable chunk of product (at least with flaring the combustion products are less harmful, but it’s still wasteful), and from the climate perspective it doesn’t help us.

But fracking looks less “bridge to nowhere” and more “bridge under construction” with technical challenges to be solved (pushed along by regulations most likely)*.

* I think the same applies to the other issues surrounding fracking like surface water spills, water recycling, etc.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 7:06 pm 09/6/2013

    If you don’t mind ever rising CO2 levels then NG is the bridge for you. With the methane leaks and increasing development of NG I expect we will also see increasing methane levels in the atmosphere as well. As the IEA has reported we can expect a bright future for the fossil fuel industry, including NG, through mid-century.

    Joe Romm has been calling it a bridge to nowhere for years.

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  2. 2. AlanSeptoff 10:26 am 09/9/2013


    At what point do you recognize that the institutions that we rely upon to impose active “technical solutions” are broken?

    The EPA, the environmental regulator of last resort who has no charge but to protect the environment and public health, is backpedaling everywhere it finds evidence of problems with fracking. Just today they withdrew a chemical disclosure regulation that’s been awaiting approval for years.

    And if EPA is unreliable as protector of the public health/environment, state regulators have proven themselves reliably negligent. We did a year long study of state enforcement data showing that states across the country simply do not enforce existing oil and gas development regulations (

    My organization Earthworks — which as been engaged in the fracking debate since well before the shale boom — has long been a “good government” group working within the system. And we’re still not endorsing a blanket ban of fracking.

    But the for us, government has proven unable to (a) ask the proper questions about the risks of unconventional oil & gas development, (b) implement and enforce regulations based upon available data, and (c) demonstrate that they’re putting community interests before industry interests.

    For these reasons, because government as protector of the public has demonstrated itself not up to the challenge of protecting the public from the largest and best funded industry (and lobby) in the world, we support a moratorium on new fracking unless and until government changes. If you’re interested, our position statement is here:

    Alan Septoff, Earthworks

    Link to this

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