A well head after all the fracking equipment has been removed. (Joshua Doubek photo)

Science Matters: A fracas over fracking

Fracked gas heats the planet, but supporters say it’s a solution

The best way to address climate disruption is… burn more fossil fuels? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what industry, media and governments want us to believe.

To profit as much as possible from fossil fuels before markets fall under the weight of climate chaos and better alternatives, industry and its allies tell us fracked gas is a climate solution. It’s not.

A new study shows it’s as bad as or worse for the climate than other fossil fuels. Cornell University researchers found alarming increases in atmospheric methane since 2008 can likely be pinned on the U.S. shale oil and gas boom.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for one-quarter of current global heating. It only stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years before it breaks down and gets reabsorbed into natural systems, but it causes a lot of damage while it’s there.

It traps heat at a rate close to 85 times higher than carbon dioxide over 20 years. CO2 not absorbed by vegetation and oceans—where it causes acidification and other problems—can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Methane is produced by biogenic (plant- and animal-based) sources, including tropical wetlands, rotting organic waste, cow burps and pig manure.

It’s also produced by leaks and “flaring” during fossil fuel development, especially fracking.

Although some question the Cornell findings, arguing that the methane spike is mainly from biogenic sources, Cornell professor Robert Howarth maintains methane emissions from the (mostly fracked) natural gas industry are much higher than industry and government report.

Research by the David Suzuki Foundation and St. Francis Xavier University found that’s the case in B.C. Other researchers conclude methane emissions are underreported in Alberta.

Howarth argues that because methane from fracked gas, like plant and animal methane, is lighter than gas from other fossil fuel development, some emissions attributed to biogenic sources likely come from fracking.

He concludes that “shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased [methane] emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.”

According to a Vox article, the U.S. is responsible for 89 per cent of shale gas production, with Canada making up the rest—and the industry is expanding rapidly, thanks in part to political support.

Because methane only remains in the atmosphere for a short period but has an enormous impact, reducing or eliminating methane emissions is a quick, effective way to lessen the threat of climate chaos.

As the foundation and others have noted, capturing and selling gas now leaked or flared would be a cost-effective solution.

But the inordinate amount of power the fossil fuel industry holds over many governments means there’s little appetite to even admit there’s a problem, let alone solve it.

The U.S. government is reversing regulation of methane leaks from oil and gas—something industry didn’t even ask for!

Canada isn’t much better.

Although the federal and B.C. governments have promised stronger regulations around oil and gas industry methane emissions, they’re committed to massive industry expansion.

Research has also found the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, the industry regulator, often puts fossil fuel interests ahead of the public’s.

In a report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ben Parfitt found industry faced no consequences after building dozens of illegal waste-containment dams in northeastern B.C.—one as high as a seven-storey building—without filing any plans.

The commission held a report for four years that showed gas wells leaking and contaminating groundwater, releasing it only after it was given to a journalist.

The commission sat on another report for four years that showed companies were violating rules designed to protect caribou and habitat.

Fracking causes numerous other problems, from earthquakes to water depletion and contamination—even health issues including birth defects, cancer and asthma.

Renewable energy is cost-effective, efficient and comes with far fewer pollution and climate problems than all fossil fuel energy.

The solution to fossil-fuelled climate chaos is to burn less, not more.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor and writer Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

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