Energy Secretary: Fracking Won’t Cook the Planet

US Department of Energy's Secretary Ernest Moniz, delivers a speech during the 57th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA at the UN atomic agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria on September 16, 2013. This meeting, following 10 other failed gatherings since early 2012, are aimed at clearing up allegations that Iran conducted nuclear weapons research before 2003 and possibly since.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Dec. 22, 2013, 9:01 a.m.

En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz is end­ing the year with a re­mind­er: Car­bon di­ox­ide is the biggest en­emy in the fight against cli­mate change.

Mon­iz, in a new in­ter­view, of­fers a quick tour of re­cent stud­ies on meth­ane emis­sions from nat­ur­al-gas de­vel­op­ment — a top­ic that’s plenty con­tro­ver­sial amid the U.S. frack­ing boom.

“We need more data,” he tells the news ser­vice Platts. But, he adds, meth­ane is far from pub­lic en­emy No. 1. That’s car­bon di­ox­ide.

“We do have, after all, meas­ure­ments of the meth­ane con­cen­tra­tions in the at­mo­sphere and what they tell us is that the car­bon di­ox­ide con­cen­tra­tions re­main by far the biggest for­cer of cli­mate change,” he said in an in­ter­view that aired Sunday.

“So CO2 re­mains the dom­in­ant con­cern for us,” Mon­iz said on Platts’ En­ergy Week TV.

The com­ments are the latest sign that Mon­iz does not see meth­ane leaks un­der­cut­ting the cli­mate ad­vant­ages that nat­ur­al gas holds over coal.

Nat­ur­al gas, which has been eat­ing in­to coal’s mar­ket share in power gen­er­a­tion, emits just half as much car­bon di­ox­ide when burned to cre­ate elec­tri­city.

It’s one of the ma­jor reas­ons U.S. car­bon emis­sions are fall­ing, and Mon­iz sees gas as an ally in the fight against glob­al warm­ing — at least for a while, al­though he be­lieves that even­tu­ally much steep­er car­bon cuts will be needed.

But leaks of meth­ane from gas wells and else­where on the sup­ply chain, crit­ics say, threaten to erode a big part of that car­bon ad­vant­age over coal (or all of it, ac­cord­ing to a Cor­nell Uni­versity pro­fess­or’s con­tro­ver­sial and con­trari­an ana­lys­is).

Mon­iz is not dis­missive of the threat from meth­ane — a gas that’s pound-for-pound about 20 times more heat-trap­ping that car­bon di­ox­ide, but emit­ted in much lower volumes and doesn’t stick around nearly as long.

His de­part­ment is part of an in­ter­agency group craft­ing a meth­ane strategy un­der Pres­id­ent Obama’s second-term cli­mate plan.

And Mon­iz is keep­ing up on his read­ing. In the in­ter­view, he cited the re­cent Uni­versity of Texas study, a product of work with the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund that had in­dustry fund­ing, which found low meth­ane emis­sions from gas wells sur­veyed.

Mon­iz, in not­ing that more data is needed, also cited more troub­ling re­search: A re­cent Har­vard Uni­versity study that found over­all U.S. meth­ane emis­sions are far above EPA es­tim­ates. That study looked at a wider ar­ray of sources, in­clud­ing gas dis­tri­bu­tion in­fra­struc­ture.

But Mon­iz, a former Mas­sachu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy phys­ics pro­fess­or, of­fers a quick les­son.

“Car­bon di­ox­ide has a very, very long res­id­ence time in the at­mo­sphere. We are talk­ing cen­tur­ies. If we emit CO2 now, we are liv­ing with that, our chil­dren are liv­ing with it, our grand­chil­dren are liv­ing with it,” Mon­iz said.

“Meth­ane, you are talk­ing more the or­der of a dec­ade. If we can clamp down, meas­ure … re­duce those meth­ane emis­sions, a lot of that will, in fact, go away in a one or two dec­ades time scale,” he said.

Else­where in the in­ter­view, Mon­iz re­it­er­ated his view that it’s time to re­vis­it laws and policies that ef­fect­ively ban U.S. crude oil ex­ports.

Check out the full in­ter­view here.

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