Fracking: Air

The European Union has consistently pushed for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This policy is driven mostly through regulation but also through research into areas such as carbon storage and renewables.

Where then does hydraulic fracking fit into this? Will the commercialisation of hydraulic fracking within the EU reduce green house gas emissions, increase emissions, or have no impact on current statistics? Can such a radically new industrial method of gas extraction fit easily into the existing legal framework?

As with anything else regarding hydraulic fracking – seismic activity, water pollution, exploitable resources etc. – the scientific community is divided over the implications of the data gathered thus far with exact figures (to excuse the pun) still up in the air.

The Tyndall Centre on Climate Change admits that existing data are inadequate. As a result any conclusions to be drawn are going to be “subject to significant levels of uncertainty”.  A view reflected in a report prepared for the European Commission and which states that existing studies yield “ a large variation in the estimated impacts of shale gas on climate change.”

The most frequently cited studies on shale gas and climate change are written by Professors at Cornell and Harvard Universities and they contradict each other with the former suggesting that shale gas is responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions (escaped methane in particular) and the former proposing that the conclusions obtained were based on incorrect techniques.

Natural gas, it is generally accepted, produces considerably less carbon dioxide when burned than coal.   To paraphrase Daniel Schrag’s report on shale gas and climate change, natural gas – when combusted for heat –  produces half as much carbon dioxide as the average coal per unit energy. “Thus burning natural gas for electricity, when displacing an average U.S coal plant, results in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of nearly a factor of three”.

Yet, coal remains one of the most significant fuels for generating global electricity. In the United States, China and the EU 40% of electricity is produced by burning coal. Just 21 % of electricity is generated by natural gas. For a compelling account of how much coal is used on a daily basis to provide enough electricity for air conditioners in the United States read this article which appeared in National Geographic.

Natural gas, clearly, is a much cleaner, less polluting fossil fuel than the most widely used alternative – coal. If the EU is serious about reducing carbon emission then what’s not to like? Indeed the IEA makes this very case in Golden Rules for a Golden Age.  The main thrust of the IEA’s argument is that if  conditions are not put in place to pursue the responsible commercialisation of hydraulic fracking then the alternative is burning more coal to meet demand and a rapid, dangerous increase in greenhouse gas pollutants.

For its part, industry accepts that whilst hydraulic fracking  “can generate higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gas, such emissions are kept to a minimum by minimising flaring and venting and by using green completions wherever possible. This ensures that methane and other greenhouse gases are captured before they can enter the atmosphere.”

Industry insists that best practice can, does and will be effective in capturing escaping gases such as methane. The oil and gas industry currently have techniques in place to prevent the seepage of methane from it’s conventional gas well – a technique they claim can be replicated with unconventional gas extraction.

Whilst this is undoubtedly true it is worth bearing in mind that to date most of the natural gas consumed stems from conventional gas sources. Far fewer wells are needed for conventional gas extraction than are needed for hydraulic fracturing. As a result the impact on climate change from natural gas, thus far, has indeed been marginal when compared to the burning of alternative fossil fuels – coal in particular. Can the same hold true when multiple well heads, scattered across a wise geographical area, are being flared and vented for shale gas?

From a climate change point of view it is difficult to form any clear conclusions as to whether fracking is or is not a clean alternative. More data needs to be gathered and more studies, using an agreed methodology, undertaken before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Interestingly, Daniel Schrag who authored the report dismissing the claims that fracking is a worse polluter than coal remains critical of hydraulic fracking.

If hydraulic fracking becomes more wide-spread, he argues, it’s main impact will be to divert attention away from renewables, “…from the climate perspective the negative impacts on innovation in low-carbon technologies appear to outweigh the benefits of a marginal reduction in emissions from reduced coal consumption.”

And therein lies, possibly, the crux of the problem. Investment in and reliance upon the natural gas retracted from hydraulic fracking will inevitably divert attention away from investment into renewables.

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