New Study Says Fracking Doesn’t Contribute to Global Warming

A groundbreaking study eases fears that the process at the heart of the U.S. energy booms contributes significantly to climate change.

FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009 file photo shows capped wells in the foreground as Anadarko Petroleum Corp., drills a series of wells on a pad on a Weld County farm near Mead, Colo. in the northeastern part of the state. The drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is shaking up world energy markets from Washington to Moscow to Beijing. Some predict what was once unthinkable: that the U.S. won't need to import natural gas in the near future, and that Russia could be the big loser. 
Coral Davenport
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Coral Davenport
Sept. 16, 2013, 11 a.m.

Frack­ers, re­joice.

A new study in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tion­al Academies of Sci­ence con­cludes that hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing—the con­tro­ver­sial tech­nique be­hind the na­tion’s re­cent oil and gas boom—doesn’t ap­pear to con­trib­ute sig­ni­fic­antly to glob­al warm­ing, as many en­vir­on­ment­al groups have warned.

It’s great news for oil and gas com­pan­ies such as Ex­xon Mo­bil, Shell, and Chev­ron, which have re­lied on break­throughs in so-called frack­ing tech­no­logy to cheaply un­lock vast new re­serves of do­mest­ic oil and nat­ur­al gas that had been trapped un­der­ground in shale-rock form­a­tions.

Hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing in­volves crack­ing open shale rock by in­ject­ing a cock­tail of sand, wa­ter, and chem­ic­als un­der­ground. Many en­vir­on­ment­al groups fear that the pro­cess can con­tam­in­ate un­der­ground wa­ter sup­plies—and also that it re­leases un­der­ground stores of meth­ane, a po­tent green­house gas that can have 20 times more im­pact on glob­al warm­ing than car­bon di­ox­ide.

“It’s very good news,” said Richard Keil, a spokes­man for Ex­xon Mo­bil, of the study. “This is a ground­break­ing sur­vey. It’s the most ex­tens­ive one that’s been done yet, and it serves to add im­port­ant new evid­ence that hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing does not con­trib­ute to cli­mate change—it does not con­trib­ute meth­ane emis­sions at levels high­er than those set by the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency.”

The study is also good news for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is ex­pec­ted this week to re­lease one in a series of new glob­al-warm­ing reg­u­la­tions on coal-fired power plants, the na­tion’s chief con­trib­ut­or to glob­al warm­ing. White House of­fi­cials con­tend that the cli­mate-change rules aren’t likely to hurt the eco­nomy, in part be­cause the coal power can be re­placed by the new glut of cheaply fracked nat­ur­al gas, which pro­duces just half the car­bon pol­lu­tion of coal. However, if fears that nat­ur­al-gas frack­ing con­trib­uted ma­jor green­house-gas meth­ane emis­sions proved true, it could have frozen the nat­ur­al-gas boom and made it far more dif­fi­cult for the Obama White House to rein in cli­mate pol­lu­tion without see­ing spikes in en­ergy costs.

The White House and EPA “have ex­pressed great in­terest in the find­ings,” said Dav­id Al­len, a pro­fess­or of chem­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing at the Uni­versity of Texas and the lead au­thor of the study. Al­len has been in­vited to brief EPA and oth­er ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials on the re­search.

It’s ex­pec­ted that the study’s res­ults could also be taken in­to ac­count as EPA and In­teri­or De­part­ment look to­ward craft­ing new reg­u­la­tions on frack­ing.

“This is the first data ever col­lec­ted from un­con­ven­tion­al oil and gas de­vel­op­ment. With good data, you can make good policy,” said Mark Brown­stein, as­so­ci­ate vice pres­id­ent and chief coun­sel for the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund’s U.S. cli­mate and en­ergy pro­gram.

“People have rightly raised the is­sue—is nat­ur­al gas bet­ter for the cli­mate than coal or oil? This is a first step to get­ting bet­ter in­form­a­tion to an­swer that ques­tion.”

The study con­cluded that the ma­jor­ity of hy­draul­ic­ally frac­tured nat­ur­al-gas wells have sur­face equip­ment that re­duces on-the-ground meth­ane emis­sions by 99 per­cent, al­though it also found that else­where on frack­ing rigs, some valves do al­low meth­ane to es­cape at levels 30 per­cent high­er than those set by EPA. Over­all, however, the study con­cludes that total meth­ane emis­sions from frack­ing are about 10 per­cent lower than levels set by EPA.

The $2.3 mil­lion study was con­duc­ted by sci­ent­ists at the Uni­versity of Texas, with fund­ing provided by nine en­ergy com­pan­ies, in­clud­ing Ex­xon Mo­bil, and one en­vir­on­ment­al group, the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund. A spokes­man for the Uni­versity of Texas said that while the com­pan­ies con­trib­uted money to the study, they had no in­put on the re­search or res­ults, which were sub­ject to in­de­pend­ent peer re­view be­fore be­ing pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tion­al Academies of Sci­ence, one the na­tion’s most pres­ti­gi­ous sci­entif­ic journ­als.

A 2011 study by Cor­nell Uni­versity re­search­ers ig­nited op­pos­i­tion to frack­ing when it con­cluded that meth­ane leaks from nat­ur­al-gas wells ac­tu­ally made nat­ur­al gas a more cli­mate-un­friendly en­ergy source than coal. Al­though Obama has cham­pioned nat­ur­al gas as a low-car­bon “bridge” fuel to the fu­ture, green groups cited the Cor­nell study as reas­on that nat­ur­al gas could be­come a cli­mate night­mare.

Uni­versity of Texas re­search­ers say their year­long study, which in­volved meas­ur­ing meth­ane emis­sions from 190 nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion sites in the Gulf Coast, mid­con­tin­ent, Rocky Moun­tains, and Ap­palachia, is far more com­pre­hens­ive than the Cor­nell study, which re­lied on ex­ist­ing data rather than new field­work.

The study’s au­thors and spon­sors said that while the study is ro­bust and com­pre­hens­ive, more re­search on meth­ane emis­sions along the nat­ur­al-gas sup­ply chain is still needed. The En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund in­tends to spon­sor more than a dozen such stud­ies in the com­ing years.

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