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Fracking, Natural Gas’s Dirty Secret

Natural gas is the good-looking younger brother to much maligned nonrenewable resources coal and petroleum. But a new study shows that natural gas produced from shale is actually responsible for spewing significantly more greenhouse gases than coal.

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Ethonomic Indicator of the Day: 45% — The amount of fracked natural gas the U.S. will use in 2035.

Natural gas is the good-looking younger brother to much maligned nonrenewable resources like coal and petroleum; it’s still plentiful, and relatively low in greenhouse gas emissions (just ask T. Boone Pickens!). But the good-looking brother has a dark secret: getting gas out of the ground is a really, really dirty process. According to Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formation, a soon-to-be-published paper in the Climatic Change Letters journal, natural gas produced from shale is actually responsible for spewing significantly more greenhouse gases than coal.

The problem is high-volume hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”), which involves injecting a fluid at high pressures into methane gas deposits to draw out natural gas. Natural gas is largely made up of methane (a potent greenhouse gas), and over the lifetime of a well, 3.6% to 7.9% of its methane escapes into the atmosphere through venting and leaks. This is, needless to say, not good–methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. As a result, the study claims, “Compared to coal, the [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.” So while burning natural gas emits fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal, the impact of fracking combined with burning natural gas is ultimately worse than the emissions from coal.

This issue isn’t going away anytime soon–the Energy Information Administration estimates that fracked gas will make up 45% of U.S. natural gas supply in 2035, compared with 14% in 2009. But there are solutions. The study suggests that better storage tanks and compressors, smart-automated plunger lifts, and vapor recovery units could all help clean up the fracking process. As could a new name that doesn’t sound quite so evil.

So far, the natural gas industry has shown little interest in adopting these technologies. And why should it? Everyone already thinks natural gas is better than coal; there’s no reason why the industry would waste its money improving operations.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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