Study: Fracking responsible for rising methane levels in atmosphere

Source: By Sergio Chapa, Houston Chronicle • Posted: Friday, August 16, 2019

Photo: James Durbin / For The Chronicle / For The Chronicle

Rising levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the atmosphere have been linked to emissions from the shale oil and natural gas industry, a new study from Cornell University reveals.

In a study published this morning in the European Geosciences Union journal Biogeosciences, Cornell University Ecology Professor Robert Howarth reported that an analysis of the methane found in the Earth’s atmosphere has chemical fingerprints that point to shale, an industry which uses horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to unlock oil and natural gas in tight geological formations.

A single methane molecule is made from one carbon atom at the center and four hydrogen atoms in orbit. But the study reveals that a rapidly growing amount of methane in the atmosphere is made from the carbon-13 atom, a type of carbon found in natural gas extracted from shale formations.

With two-thirds of all new natural gas production over the last decade coming from shale formations in the United Sates and Canada, Howarth reported that atmospheric methane concentrations have been rising since the rise of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in 2008.

“This recent increase in methane is massive,” Howarth said in a statement. “It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen and shale gas is a major player.”

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Atmospheric methane levels had previously risen during the last two decades of the 20th century but leveled in the first decade of 21st century. But the report shows that atmospheric levels of methane increased by 570 billion tons in 2008 and grew by another 595 billlion tons in 2014.

Most of the natural gas extracted from shale formations is used for power plants, petrochemical plants and heating buildings but because it is a byproduct of drilling for oil, a large amount of it is burned off at drilling sites in an industry practice known as flaring. Some methane is released into the atmosphere from leaky oil field equipment and pipelines.

“Reducing methane now can provide an instant way to slow global warming and meet the United Nations’ target of keeping the planet well below a 2-degree Celsius average rise,” Howarth said.

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Carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases scientifically linked to global warming, but they behave quite differently in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for centuries while methane is more potent but breaks down much more quickly.

“If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate,” Howard said. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”

But not everybody agrees with Howarth’s research. Quentin Fisher, a petroleum engineering professor at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, told Newsweek he was skeptical.

“The results are extremely sensitive to highly questionable assumptions regarding the isotopic composition of methane found in shale,” Fisher told Newsweek. “The arguments made by previous studies that increase in methane in the atmosphere is from biogenic sources, such as release from wetlands and agriculture or burning of biomass, seem far more convincing.”

Steve Everley, a spokesman for the industry-funded Texans for Natural Gas, said Howarth is a board member of the anti-fracking group Food & Water Watch and that the study was reviewed by a board member fo the anit-fracking gruop Earthworks.

“This is junk science, and is designed only to attract headlines,” Everley said. “Within the scientific community, Dr. Howarth’s methane research has long been considered an outlier. The scientific consensus on natural gas is that it has clear climate benefits, supported by none other than the U.N. IPCC and the International Energy Agency.”