Stunning new research finds fracking a major source of carbon pollution in Pennsylvania

Methane leaks in the state's oil and gas industry equal 11 coal-fired power plants.

Flaring takes place after a gas well has been drilled and before it is put into operation. CREDIT: Carolyn Cole/L.A. Times via Getty Images
Flaring takes place after a gas well has been drilled and before it is put into operation. CREDIT: Carolyn Cole/L.A. Times via Getty Images

The evidence is now overwhelming that natural gas is not part of the climate solution, it is part of the problem.

new study finds that the methane escaping from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry “causes the same near-term climate pollution as 11 coal-fired power plants.” And that is “five times higher than what oil and gas companies report” to the state, according to analysis from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) based on 16 peer-reviewed studies.

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Natural gas is mostly methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas, which traps 86 times as much heat as CO2 over a 20-year period. So even a small leakage rate from the natural gas supply chain (production to delivery to combustion) can have a large climate impact  —  enough to gut the entire benefit of switching from coal-fired power to gas for a long, long time.

Yet even though many earlier studies have found that natural gas production spews out huge amounts of carbon pollution all across the country, just last week, the Trump administration moved to undo an Obama-era rule aimed at limiting the methane leakage from gas and oil production on public lands.

As EDF’s president Fred Krupp told the New York Times, “Gutting the rule would allow unchecked waste of natural gas, unnecessary pollution and the loss of revenue to communities and tribes to address critical needs such as schools and roads,”

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Methane leakage is widespread. In November, a study found the methane emissions escaping from New Mexico’s oil and gas industry are “equivalent to the climate impact of approximately 12 coal-fired power plants.”

And last month a new NASA study that found most of the huge rise in global methane emissions in the past decade is from the fossil fuel industry — and that this rise is “substantially larger” than previously thought. Methane emissions are responsible for about a quarter of the human-caused global warming the world is experiencing today.

Meanwhile, many other studies find  that  natural gas plants don’t replace only high-carbon coal plants. They often replace very low carbon power sources like solar, wind, nuclear, and even energy efficiency. That means even a very low methane leakage rate wipes out the climate benefit of fracking.

But researchers confirmed in 2014 that  —  even if methane leakage were zero percent  — “increased natural gas use for electricity will not substantially reduce US GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, and by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies, may actually exacerbate the climate change problem in the long term.” Indeed, a 2016 study found that natural gas and renewables are competing directly with each other to replace coal plants in this country.

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All of this evidence shows natural gas is not a climate solution, despite the Trump administration and gas industry arguing that it is a lower carbon source of energy that can help bridge the gap while transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Reports, however, make clear that renewables are already able to handle the job of running a modern economy — so there’s no more need to argue for the use of polluting natural gas as a “bridge” to a carbon-free future.