By Chris Mooney
On the surface, it looks like extraordinarily good news. The United States is burning less coal — less of the fuel that contributes the most carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when burned. Instead, we’re swapping in cleaner burning natural gas, which could serve as a “bridge” to an era in which wind and solar provide the bulk of the nation’s power. And carbon dioxide emissions are already lower as a result.
Yet there’s a nagging problem here that just won’t go away. Environmentalists have charged for some time that the fracking boom — the rise in unconventional natural gas that is the key driver of all of this — has a dark underbelly. Natural gas’s principal component is methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. And if it gets to the atmosphere unburned, it has a much larger warming effect than carbon dioxide does, over a period of about 10 years.
So if there are enough leaks from the new wave of unconventional oil and gas drilling operations, it is possible to substantially undermine the climate benefits that accrue from less burning of coal — and moreover, to do so over the crucial next few decades, when all the key changes have to be made if there’s any hope of averting the worst climate damage.
Recent events and recent science alike are now forcing this issue. The Aliso Canyon natural gas leak near Los Angeles was simply enormous, pouring nearly 100,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. It was the “largest methane leak in U.S. history,” according to a recent report by the scientific advisory panel of the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, a group of countries and partners trying to reduce emissions of short-lived climate change pollutants, such as methane. Similarly, a recently released infrared camera survey, conducted by helicopter, of some 8,000 U.S. oil and gas well pads in a number of high producing regions found leaks at 327 pads, or 4 percent overall. It concluded that the EPA “may be underestimating” emissions caused by oil and gas tanks on these sites in particular.
Meanwhile, still more recent satellite research is suggesting that U.S. methane emissions are on a big upswing — even as the EPA is expected tosoon report new totals for methane emissions from oil and gas, as part of its broader annual inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions submitted to the United Nations. And if it sticks with preliminary figures, it will revise 2013 emissions upward by more than 25 percent, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund. (What happens with other years remains to be seen).
In the meantime, the numbers have already been disputed. “The release of these partially revised numbers is misleading,” said the American Petroleum Institute’s vice president for regulatory and economic policy, Kyle Isakower, in March. “We have every reason to believe that the final data, when issued, will still indicate a significant downward trend in emissions even as oil and natural gas production has risen.” So the question is both urgent, and also difficult: Is the U.S. undermining its climate progress with invisible leaks of a second, even more potent greenhouse gas?
“A little bit of a mystery right now”
Let’s start with the basics: Globally, concentrations of methane in the atmosphere, just like concentrations of carbon dioxide, are rising. The rise hasn’t been as steady, though — it actually appeared to stall in the 2000s. However, it is now on a major upswing again, which is certainly very bad news for the climate, and bad news that couldn’t come at a worse time.
But the question is, why?