Andreas Späth

What does fracking smell like?

2014-10-20 10:24

Andreas Wilson-Späth

With fracking for shale gas likely to become a reality in many parts of South Africa, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Does fracking have an odour?

Supporters will tell you that their pet technology is properly housetrained and does not give off any disagreeable scents. While that may be true for the most part, if you happen to live in an area targeted by the fracking industry, expect a significant increase of dust and diesel fumes in the air as hundreds of trucks will be shipping equipment and fracking fluid back and forth 24/7.

You should be more worried about the things you can’t smell. The assortment of volatile hydrocarbon compounds that reach the surface together with fracked shale gas may not have much of an aroma and can’t be seen without an infrared camera, but it’s not exactly good for your health. A recent study conducted in Pennsylvania, one of the centres of shale gas extraction in the USA, found that people who live close to natural gas production wells are more prone to health problems including skin conditions and respiratory symptoms.

Methane (CH4), which is the main component of natural gas, is completely odourless. It may generate significantly less carbon dioxide (CO2) when it is burned in power plants or combustion engines than oil or coal, but in its unburned state, it’s a much more potent greenhouse gas, estimated to be 30 times as effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100 year time span than carbon dioxide.

And here lies the problem. The natural gas industry is notoriously leaky. Methane escapes from a variety of places in the infrastructure that’s used to convey the stuff to the surface, to transport and store it. Exactly how much methane behaves as a ‘fugitive gas’ is a much debated questions with estimates ranging from 1% to 9% and more. It’s enough to make critics believe that, considered in its entirety; fracking is no better, or perhaps even worse, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, than burning coal or oil.

A paper published in the journal Science in February suggests that methane leaks from American natural gas operations are 50% higher than estimated by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, satellite data have confirmed the considerable leakiness of the industry.

Escaping methane not only makes its way into the atmosphere, but into nearby drinking water supplies as well. A little while ago, much was made in the media of a study that demonstrated that the process of fracking itself (i.e. using water under high pressure to fracture rock and release tiny gas bubbles) did not contribute to groundwater contamination, but that it was methane seeping out of the wells used to extract this gas from underground which was to blame. But that’s a bit like me telling you that the gun I’m holding to your head won’t kill you when we both know that it’s the bullet that will do the trick.

There is no getting away from the fact that a leaky natural gas industry is responsible for pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, new research shows that even without any methane leaks in the system, an increased use of natural gas, the majority of which will come from fracking shale gas deposits worldwide, is unlikely to result in a significant reduction (if any) in greenhouse gas emissions. This is true in the USA, the current world leader when it comes to fracking, and when projected on a global scale.

The notion that fracking is a ‘bridging fuel’ to a low-carbon energy future is bogus – marketing doublespeak from a powerful industry that’s mostly interested in fossil fuel profits begging to be liberated from below the ground.

A new EU report indicates that when all external costs (e.g. pollution, climate change, human health impacts) are taken into account, renewable wind and solar energy are substantially cheaper than natural gas, and a new life-cycle analysis shows that low-carbon energy sources are well capable of supplying global electricity demands by 2050.

We don’t need shale gas.

Methane may be odourless. But fracking stinks.

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