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Methane leakage from fracking: bridge to nowhere or opportunity?

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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.

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

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