Paul Brown – Fracking’s Methane Leaks Drive Climate Heat

One likely cause of the inexorable rise in global heat is fracking’s methane leaks from the shale gas industry.

Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network and journalist

Cross-posted from Climate News Network

An atmospheric methane rise that will speed up global temperature rise is probably being caused mainly by the gas industry’s fracking methane leaks in North America, a new study says.

The analysis, confirming environmentalists’ worst fears about fracking, is a serious blow to the industry, which claims the gas it produces is cleaner than coal and is needed in the interim before renewables can replace fossil fuels.

The study is the work of a scientist from Cornell University in the US who has examined the rapid rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere since 2008. He has found that the gas’s carbon composition has changed.

His research suggests that methane from biological sources such as cows and bogs has less carbon-13 relative to carbon-12 (denoting the weight of the carbon atom at the centre of the methane molecule) than does methane from conventional natural gas and other fossil fuels such as coal.

The conclusion is that the process of forcing chemicals and water into rock to release gas – the process known as fracking – causes the increased methane emissions. The fracking industry has boomed, and the “signature” of the carbon in the atmosphere points directly to that as the cause.

“If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate. It goes away pretty quickly. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming”

The scientist, Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, said: “This recent increase in methane is massive. It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen, and shale gas is a major player.” His study is published in Biogeosciences, a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

Professor Howarth said about two thirds of all new gas production over the last decade had been shale gas from the US and Canada. Previous studies had concluded erroneously that biological sources were the cause of rising methane, but the analysis of the gas showed it came from fracking.

Atmospheric methane levels rose during the last two decades of the 20th century but then levelled off for about a decade. Then they increased dramatically from 2008 to 2014, from about 570 teragrams (570 billion tonnes) annually to about 595 teragrams, because of global human-caused methane emissions in the last 11 years.

Methane is an intense but short-lived contributor to climate change. It traps heat in the atmosphere far more efficiently than carbon dioxide can, but over a much shorter period, because it breaks down quickly and can disperse completely in a few years.

Industry hopes dashed

Professor Howarth says: “If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate. It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”

The findings will be a serious blow to the hopes of the fracking industry to expand into Europe and other parts of the world. Already there is considerable resistance to fracking, and it has been banned in some EU countries, including France, Germany and Ireland.

But others − including the United Kingdom, which has recently declared a climate emergency − have encouraged fracking, despite growing public opposition.

The fact that fracking is now suspected of causing climate change to accelerate will make it extremely hard for governments to continue to encourage the industry.

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