What is fracking’s Achilles’ Heel? Air, not water, pollution

Joe Nocera of the NYT has been pro fracking for quite awhile, but today he admits that methane leakage is the “achilles heel” of the industry. A thoughtful piece …

Fracking’s Achilles’ Heel


Published: November 18, 2013
It’s not very often that someone starts his career as a geologist and then winds up as governor, but John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado, can make that claim. “We had fracking when I was a working geologist in 1981,” he told me on Monday. “It was very primitive. What really changed the world is when we got horizontal drilling. It was a technique that allowed you to recover a lot more natural gas.”
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Joe Nocera

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“But,” he added, almost poignantly, “it’s been polarizing.”

That’s for sure. During the last election two weeks ago, four Colorado communities voted to ban hydraulic fracturing (to use the proper terminology). A fifth town, Longmont, voted against fracking a year ago, resulting in a lawsuitbrought by the oil and gas industry and joined by the State of Colorado. It is a state where the owner of a parcel of land doesn’t necessarily own the mineral rightsunderground, which is a source of enormous tension. Colorado has tens of thousands of wells — an economic boon — and also some of the most vocal anti-fracking activists in the country.

Which perhaps helps explain why Monday’s announcement that Colorado has come up with rules to regulate the leakage of methane from fracked wells has not exactly been greeted with hosannas. But it should be.

Methane leakage is the Achilles’ heel of hydraulic fracturing. For all the fears that it might contaminate the water supply — a possibility, yes, but not likely — it is methane leakage that can moot the advantage of natural gas as a cleaner fuel than coal. It is well established that when natural gas is combusted, it has both environmental and climate change benefits — starting with the fact that natural gas emits half the carbon of coal.

But that advantage disappears when too much methane leaks during any part of the production process. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “Methane is at least 28 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over the longer term and at least 84 times more potent in the near term.” (Methane gradually loses its potency as a greenhouse gas over time.) “Our interest in natural gas as a bridge fuel is undermined when methane leaks,” says Dan Grossman, the environmental fund’s Rocky Mountain regional director.

A bridge fuel is precisely what many in the environmental movement don’t want, of course. After all, natural gas may be cleaner, but it is still a fossil fuel — and thus, in their view, part of the problem because they believe that an abundance of natural gas could delay their long-sought nirvana of a world powered by alternative energy sources.

Meanwhile, here in the real world, new wells are being drilled every day, natural gas is becoming more abundant and the country is coming to depend on it. There is simply no way America is going to turn its back on natural gas.

Which is why the E.D.F. approach makes so much more sense: rather than calling, Don Quixote-like, for an end to fracking, it is working with states like Colorado to make it safer, more transparent and cleaner.

For the rest of the story, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/opinion/nocera-frackings-achilles-heel.html?emc=edit_tnt_20131118&tntemail0=y&_r=0