Just what we need….something new to lose sleep over. Those of us who listen to the scientists and are concerned about not messing up the earth have been working to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Now evidence is piling up that while carbon dioxide is bad, an even worse problem is methane. It turns out that methane is much worse at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is.
Methane Gas: A Bi-product of Fracking
Methane gets into the atmosphere a number of ways. It comes from swamps and wetlands; it escapes from the bottom of the ocean and vegetarians point out that cattle belch up huge quantities of the gas. But what we are now realizing is that fracking releases enormous amounts of it, most of which escapes while drilling for oil and natural gas in the. A lot of attention is being devoted to sealing wells to prevent leaks, but this is proving to be very hard to do.
Until recently, natural gas was being touted as a panacea, in that it produces much less carbon dioxide when burned than coal does. Most new power generating facilities use natural gas because it is cheap and clean-burning. What’s new is the realization that in the process of capturing the gas from underground shale formations, huge amounts escape into the atmosphere.
Harvard scientists have discovered that methane emissions increased 30 per cent between 2002 and 2014.
A recent study found that if as little as three per cent of the methane escapes during drilling operations, then methane from drilling will do more climate damage than burning coal has. Preliminary data indicates somewhere between 3.6% and 7.9% of the gas actually escapes into the atmosphere.
There are other problems with fracking. Remember the farmers in Pennsylvania who discovered that the water coming out of their faucets would burn when lit by a match? In the process of breaking apart shale rock formations, it is almost inevitable that some of the released gas will make its way into the water table. Earthquakes seem to be getting much more common in areas where fracking is going on. For the first time, Oklahoma is now earthquake country. Here in California where water conservation has been a big issue, fracking requires huge amounts of the precious resource.
In November, President Obama announced that he was rejecting the Keystone pipeline. He said “if we are going to prevent large parts of this earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release dangerous pollution in the sky.” Now that we know unburned methane is much worse than the carbon dioxide formed by combustion, there is even more reason to leave the fossil fuels in the ground.
The political considerations of this are tremendous. Everyone likes cheap gas. The coal miners in West Virginia want to keep their jobs. The farmer in North Dakota who knows he has oil under his soil wants to be able to retire from it. Those of us who have Exxon stocks in our portfolio hate to see them lose value. But our problems will seem small as we watch rising sea levels displace half of the population of Bangladesh and submerge the homelands of the Pacific Islanders. Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate admitting concern about global warming.
Unless we are looking forward to Rossmoor Parkway becoming oceanfront property, we should be promoting efforts to develop wind power, sun power and other renewable energy sources as the alternative to fossil fuels -especially methane.
Major fossil fuel companies have known about the science of global warming for decades. However, instead of addressing the harm they knew their products were causing, these companies chose a course of public denial and deception. It’s payback time for them.
New York state recently banned all fracking operations in that state. Environmentalists in California are trying to enact a similar ban here. Sounds like a good idea to me.
This article first appeared in the April 20, 2016 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Bob Hanson.