Global Warming’s Terrifying New ChemistryOur leaders thought fracking would save our climate. They were wrong. Very wrong.
By Bill McKibben | March 23, 2016 | The Nation
Global warming is, in the end, not about the noisy political battles here on the planet’s surface. It actually happens in constant, silent interactions in the atmosphere, where the molecular structure of certain gases traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. If you get the chemistry wrong, it doesn’t matter how many landmark climate agreements you sign or how many speeches you give. And it appears the United States may have gotten the chemistry wrong. Really wrong.
There’s one greenhouse gas everyone knows about: carbon dioxide, which is what you get when you burn fossil fuels. We talk about a “price on carbon” or argue about a carbon tax; our leaders boast about modest “carbon reductions.” But in the last few weeks, CO2’s nasty little brother has gotten some serious press. Meet methane, otherwise known as CH4.
In February, Harvard researchers published an explosive paper in Geophysical Research Letters. Using satellite data and ground observations, they concluded that the nation as a whole is leaking methane in massive quantities. Between 2002 and 2014, the data showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of an enormous spike in methane in the entire planet’s atmosphere.
To the extent our leaders have cared about climate change, they’ve fixed on CO2. Partly as a result, coal-fired power plants have begun to close across the country. They’ve been replaced mostly with ones that burn natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane. Because burning natural gas releases significantly less carbon dioxide than burning coal, CO2 emissions have begun to trend slowly downward, allowing politicians to take a bow. But this new Harvard data, which comes on the heels of other aerial surveys showing big methane leakage, suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities. And molecule for molecule, this unburned methane is much, much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
The EPA insisted this wasn’t happening, that methane was on the decline just like CO2. But it turns out, as some scientists have been insisting for years, the EPA was wrong. Really wrong. This error is the rough equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange announcing tomorrow that the Dow Jones isn’t really at 17,000: Its computer program has been making a mistake, and your index fund actually stands at 11,000.
These leaks are big enough to wipe out a large share of the gains from the Obama administration’s work on climate change—all those closed coal mines and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, it’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years. The methane story is utterly at odds with what we’ve been telling ourselves, not to mention what we’ve been telling the rest of the planet. It undercuts the promises we made at the climate talks in Paris. It’s a disaster—and one that seems set to spre2ad.
The Obama administration, to its credit, seems to be waking up to the problem. Over the winter, the EPA began to revise its methane calculations, and in early March, the United States reached an agreement with Canada to begin the arduous task of stanching some of the leaks from all that new gas infrastructure. But none of this gets to the core problem, which is the rapid spread of fracking. Carbon dioxide is driving the great warming of the planet, but CO2 isn’t doing it alone. It’s time to take methane seriously.
To understand how we got here, it’s necessary to remember what a savior fracked natural gas looked like to many people, environmentalists included. As George W. Bush took hold of power in Washington, coal was ascendant, here and around the globe. Cheap and plentiful, it was most visibly underwriting the stunning growth of the economy in China, where, by some estimates, a new coal-fired power plant was opening every week. The coal boom didn’t just mean smoggy skies over Beijing; it meant the planet’s invisible cloud of carbon dioxide was growing faster than ever, and with it the certainty of dramatic global warming.
So lots of people thought it was great news when natural-gas wildcatters began rapidly expanding fracking in the last decade. Fracking involves exploding the sub-surface geology so that gas can leak out through newly opened pores; its refinement brought online new shale deposits across the continent—most notably the Marcellus Shale, stretching from West Virginia up into Pennsylvania and New York. The quantities of gas that geologists said might be available were so vast that they were measured in trillions of cubic feet and in centuries of supply.
The apparently happy fact was that when you burn natural gas, it releases half as much carbon dioxide as coal. A power plant that burned natural gas would therefore, or so the reasoning went, be half as bad for global warming as a power plant that burned coal. Natural gas was also cheap—so, from a politician’s point of view, fracking was a win-win situation. You could appease the environmentalists with their incessant yammering about climate change without having to run up the cost of electricity. It would be painless environmentalism, the equivalent of losing weight by cutting your hair.
And it appeared even better than that. If you were President Obama and had inherited a dead-in-the-water economy, the fracking boom offered one of the few economic bright spots. Not only did it employ lots of people, but cheap natural gas had also begun to alter the country’s economic equation: Manufacturing jobs were actually returning from overseas, attracted by newly abundant energy. In his 2012 State of the Union address, Obama declared that new natural-gas supplies would not only last the nation a century, but would create 600,000 new jobs by decade’s end. In his 2014 address, he announced that “businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in factories that use natural gas,” and pledged to “cut red tape” to get it all done. In fact, the natural-gas revolution has been a constant theme of his energy policy, the tool that made his restrictions on coal palatable. And Obama was never shy about taking credit for at least part of the boom. Public research dollars, he said in 2012, “helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock—reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”
Obama had plenty of help selling natural gas—from the fossil-fuel industry, but also from environmentalists, at least for a while. Robert Kennedy Jr., who had enormous credibility as the founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance and a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote a paean in 2009 to the “revolution…over the past two years [that] has left America awash in natural gas and has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal practically overnight.” Meanwhile, the longtime executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, had not only taken $25 million from one of the nation’s biggest frackers, Chesapeake Energy, to fund his organization, but was also making appearances with the company’s CEO to tout the advantages of gas, “an excellent example of a fuel that can be produced in quite a clean way, and shouldn’t be wasted.” (That CEO, Aubrey McClendon, apparently killed himself earlier this month, crashing his car into a bridge embankment days after being indicted for bid-rigging.) Exxon was in apparent agreement as well: It purchased XTO Energy, becoming the biggest fracker in the world overnight and allowing the company to make the claim that it was helping to drive emissions down.
For a brief shining moment, you couldn’t have asked for more. As Obama told a joint session of Congress, “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”
Unless, of course, you happened to live in the fracking zone, where nightmares were starting to unfold. In recent decades, most American oil and gas exploration had been concentrated in the western United States, often far from population centers. When there were problems, politicians and media in these states paid little attention.
The Marcellus Shale, though, underlies densely populated eastern states. It wasn’t long before stories about the pollution of farm fields and contamination of drinking water from fracking chemicals began to make their way into the national media. In the Delaware Valley, after a fracking company tried to lease his family’s farm, a young filmmaker named Josh Fox produced one of the classic environmental documentaries of all time, Gasland, which became instantly famous for its shot of a man lighting on fire the methane flowing from his water faucet.
This reporting helped galvanize a movement—at first town by town, then state by state, and soon across whole regions. The activism was most feverish in New York, where residents could look across the Pennsylvania line and see the ecological havoc that fracking caused. Scores of groups kept up unrelenting pressure that eventually convinced Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban it. Long before that happened, the big environmental groups recanted much of their own support for fracking: The Sierra Club’s new executive director, Michael Brune, not only turned down $30 million in potential donations from fracking companies but came out swinging against the practice. “The club needs to…advocate more fiercely to use as little gas as possible,” he said. “We’re not going to mute our voice on this.” As for Robert Kennnedy Jr., by 2013 he was calling natural gas a “catastrophe.”
In the end, one of the most important outcomes of the antifracking movement may have been that it attracted the attention of a couple of Cornell scientists. Living on the northern edge of the Marcellus Shale, Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea got interested in the outcry. While everyone else was focused on essentially local issues—would fracking chemicals get in the water supply?—they decided to look more closely at a question that had never gotten much attention: How much methane was invisibly being leaked by these fracking operations?
Because here’s the unhappy fact about methane: Though it produces only half as much carbon as coal when you burn it, if you don’t—if it escapes into the air before it can be captured in a pipeline, or anywhere else along its route to a power plant or your stove—then it traps heat in the atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2.
Howarth and Ingraffea began producing a series of papers claiming that if even a small percentage of the methane leaked—maybe as little as 3 percent—then fracked gas would do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that leak rates could be at least that high: that somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale-drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere.
To say that no one in power wanted to hear this would be an understatement. The two scientists were roundly attacked by the industry; one trade group called their study the “Ivory Tower’s latest fact-free assault on shale gas exploration.” Most of the energy establishment joined in. An MIT team, for instance, had just finished an industry-funded report that found “the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable”; one of its lead authors, the ur-establishment energy expert Henry Jacoby, described the Cornell research as “very weak.” One of its other authors, Ernest Moniz, would soon become the US secretary of energy; in his nomination hearings in 2013, he lauded the “stunning increase” in natural gas as a “revolution” and pledged to increase its use domestically.
The trouble for the fracking establishment was that new research kept backing up Howarth and Ingraffea. In January 2013, for instance, aerial overflights of fracking basins in Utah found leak rates as high as 9 percent. “We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see,” said the study’s director. But such work was always piecemeal, one area at a time, while other studies—often conducted with industry-supplied data—came up with lower numbers.
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