Fracking boom in U.S. and Canada leads to massive spike in global methane levels
Hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — has become virtually ubiquitous across the United States and Canada, as energy companies look for new sources of natural gas and other fossil fuels, as well as large profits.
“(Cornell University) Professor Robert Howarth examined … fracking over the past several decades, noting the fracking boom that has taken place since the first years of the 21st century. Between 2005 and 2015, fracking went from producing 31 billion cubic meters of shale gas per year to producing 435 billion cubic meters.
“Nearly 90 percent of that fracking took place in the U.S., while about 10 percent was done in Canada.”
Fracking was first developed in 1949 by numerous oil and gas companies, but there’s been a boom in the use of the extraction method over the past decade, and that, according to Professor Howarth, has led to the rise in methane levels across the globe, as Newsweek recently noted:
“While methane released in the late 20th century was enriched with the carbon isotope 13C, Howarth highlights methane released in recent years features lower levels. That’s because the methane in shale gas has depleted levels of the isotope when compared with conventional natural gas or fossil fuels such as coal, he explained.”
In the study, Howarth lays out the scientific evidence proving that methane levels have spiked since fracking went into widespread use across North America:
“The methane in shale gas is somewhat depleted in 13C relative to conventional natural gas. Correcting earlier analyses for this difference, we conclude that shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.
“The commercialization of shale gas and oil in the 21st century has dramatically increased global methane emissions.”
The bottom line, Professor Howarth believes, is that the energy industry needs to “move as quickly as possible away from natural gas, reducing both carbon dioxide and methane emissions.”
And there is one silver lining to the increase in methane levels: The climate reacts more rapidly to methane than it does carbon dioxide, which suggests that if levels of the gas are reduced soon, that alone “could provide an opportunity to immediately slow the rate of global warming.”
Howarth’s study drew praise from others in the scientific community. Peter Strachan, Professor of Energy Policy at Robert Gordon University, had this to say on Twitter:
— Prof Peter Strachan (@ProfStrachan) August 14, 2019
Grant Allen, professor of atmospheric physics at the U.K.’s University of Manchester, welcome Howarth’s efforts, but noted that it does have some limitations:
“A wide range of different methane fluxes from different source types (e.g. fossil fuels, agriculture, wildfires and wetlands) can all simultaneously explain the observed trend in methane (and carbon isotopes of methane) within the limits of uncertainty in our knowledge of their carbon-isotopic fingerprints and estimates of total methane emitted from each source type.
“Other work has also proposed a role for changing chemical sinks of methane in the atmosphere. The jury is still out on the relative importance of all of these sources in explaining methane’s rise.”
But with energy producers expanding their fracking operations and the Trump administration encouraging the practice — even on public lands — it seems unlikely that methane levels will be falling anytime soon.
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