Fracking Methane is a RealClimate essay (2011-04-16) from Gavin Schmidt describing the impact of shale gas extraction and the spin from contrarians and denialists about a recent paper showing that natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing has inherent problems. Quoting from his article:
The Howarth et al paper estimating the climatic impact of shale gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has provoked a number of responses across the media. Since the issue of natural gas vs. coal or oil, and the specifics of fracking itself are established and growing public issues, most commentary has served to bolster any particular commenter’s prior position on some aspect of this. So far, so unsurprising. However, one aspect of the Howarth study uses work that I’ve been involved in to better estimate the indirect effects of short-lived emissions (including methane, the dominant component of shale gas). Seeing how this specific piece of science is being brought into a policy debate is rather interesting.
The basic issue is that for any real economic or industrial activity there are a variety of emissions associated with the life cycle of that activity – from construction, transport of fuels, operating emissions, end products etc. In deciding whether one activity is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than an alternative, people need to have an assessment of the cost, the carbon footprint, other impacts etc., over that whole life cycle. There are of course different elements to this (cost, pollution, social issues) that need to weighed up, but one piece that is amenable to scientific analysis is the impact on climate drivers.
… The industry website Energy in Depth was quick off the mark with a response that feigned surprise and shock that the emission estimates were uncertain (somewhat hypocritically since it is the same industry that has resisted almost any improvement in reporting standards).
… Another frequent framing is the false dichotomy. Apparently, natural gas must either be perfect solve-all or worse than useless (see for instance, Keith Kloor’s take).