Andreas Späth

Fracking, climate change and greed

2013-01-29 12:06

Andreas Späth

The global fracking boom is gaining momentum. It’s in full swing in America. China, a country with shale gas reserves comparable to those of the USA, is preparing to establish its own massive fracking industry. The British government has recently lifted an earlier suspension of fracking activities and green-lighted a controversial new gas generation strategy. In South Africa, we’re ready to join the fray.

In trying to persuade us that these are positive developments, the oil and gas industry would have us believe that shale gas produced by fracking is:

a) a low-carbon energy solution that generates less greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than other fossil fuels,

b) a bridging fuel to a future low-carbon economy, and

c) an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change.

Each of these assertions deserves some scrutiny.

A low-carbon fossil fuel?

While shale gas, just like conventional natural gas, burns more cleanly than oil or coal, there is considerable scientific debate over whether it has a smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels when all the stages in its production are taken into consideration.

In the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from fracking wells, a group of researchers led by Cornell University professor Robert Howarth argued that such wells leak up to twice as much methane, a much more potent GHG than CO2, than conventional gas wells, resulting in emissions comparable to those associated with coal. These results have been disputed by a number of, but Howarth has defended his findings, stating “that for most uses, the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”.

A new study has brought into question the rate of methane leakage in natural gas fields in general. The authors found that as much as 4% of all the methane produced at a field near Denver disappeared into thin air – that’s about twice the rate claimed by industry. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, they presented additional data from Colorado and Utah suggesting leakages of up to 9%. These measurements exclude any losses from pipelines and distribution systems.

The figures are important: in April last year, scientists showed that electricity generated by burning natural gas only has immediate climate change benefits if the total leakage from production is below 3.2%.

A bridging fuel?

Shale gas could only possibly be considered as a transitional source of energy to a low-carbon economy if there was, in fact, an unbridgeable gap that needed crossing. There isn’t and the argument is a red herring.

Numerous reports have shown that currently available renewable energy technology is perfectly capable of satisfying most if not all of our power requirements by 2050. A small recent sampling includes studies by the US National Energy Laboratory, some of Europe’s most distinguished renewable energy experts and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The transition to a cleaner, low-emission economy based on renewable energy sources - with which we are richly blessed in SA - requires political will, not a push to exploit more fossil fuels.

A weapon against climate change?

Instead of saving us from global warming, shale gas stands to push us over the edge.

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, no more than a third of the world’s proven reserves of all fossil fuels – not just shale gas – can be consumed before 2050 if we’re to have a 50% chance of constraining average temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and maintain a reasonably stable climate. More conservative estimates argue that, to be safe, 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.

The bottom line is simple: if we dig up all of the shale gas beneath our feet, the planet fries.

That should be a good enough reason not to, but to the oil and gas companies the stuff simply represents profits waiting to be liberated. If you believe they will stop drilling holes into the ground before they’ve got it all or before the weather turns nasty, you’re dreaming.

A refreshingly honest summation of the industry’s greedy rationale by Professor Terry Engelder, a geologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in Nature in 2011 says it all: “Fracking is crucial to global economic stability [read “money in our pocketses”]; the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks”.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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