Here’s why the natural gas industry should be dousing, not fanning the flames of global warming.
Cornell’s Renee Santoro writes at The Conversation:
…Full-lifecycle emissions for conventional and shale gas, based on the revised national inventory data, fall within the ranges we initially reported. Nearly all studies confirm 40% to 60% higher methane emissions from shale gas than from conventional gas. However, methane’s importance in affecting the climate in the near-term remains grossly understated in many of the lifecycle studies; studies that base their final conclusions on 100-year global warming potentials (GWP) and dismiss the updated methane GWP factors…
Technical solutions for reducing (not eliminating) methane emissions from shale gas do exist. The most obvious targets are the greatest emission sources: flowback (the waste water produced by the fracking process) and downstream fugitive emissions.
With gathering lines in place – and if the company has invested in proper separation equipment or contracted services – a portion of the methane produced during fluid flowback can be captured and sold to market. To date, there is no evidence this is common industry practice. At current prices, it may not even be in the interest of industry to capture this methane.
The US EPA proposed new regulations last summer mandating the capture of methane on all hydraulically fractured wells. But industry has successfully pushed the final ruling to spring of 2012. How the originally proposed regulations will hold up is still unclear.
Fugitive methane losses from downstream activity (such as gas storage, compression, transmission and distribution pipelines) make up an equally large portion of the estimated life-cycle methane emissions from the natural gas industry.
Fixing these leaks may be extremely costly. Half of the transmission pipelines in the US are more than 50 years old, and in many cities, the local distribution pipes are older yet. In cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, these local systems often pre-date the Great Depression of the 1930s, and are based on unwelded cast iron pipe placed end-to-end with sealant that probably gave out before World War II.
Does it really make sense to spend vast sums of capital to rebuild this crumbling natural gas system? Or is society better off investing that capital in technologies for the 21st century, such as renewable energy sources, greater energy efficiency and smart grids?