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New Study Adds Fuel to Argument that Natural Gas is Worse than Coal

FlareResearchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently added fuel to what is already a fiery debate over the climate impact of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. They reported that between 4 and 9 percent of natural gas can leak into the atmosphere during extraction, according to an article in the journal Nature.

Those numbers appear to vindicate controversial studies by Cornell Scientist Robert Howarth, who estimated that up to 8 percent of natural gas escapes during extraction –- enough to make natural gas worse for the climate than coal.  Other studies, including one by a Cornell colleague of Howarth’s, L. M. Cathles –- estimate the leakage rate to be much lower, perhaps 1.5 percent.

Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said he believes the new NOAA research gives additional reasons to question the environmental benefits of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, which is often portrayed as a “clean fuel” from a climate perspective.

“If you frack for natural gas, the resulting gas, when you burn it, produces half the carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas) as coal,” Tidwell said.  “But that’s not the whole story.  When you look at the lifecycle pollution of natural gas – i.e. the global warming pollution that is emitted into the atmosphere during the drilling process itself, and the amount of escaped gas in the piping… it turns out that a lot of it leaks in that process. And that gas is by other name methane, and methane is 21 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.”

Over the last decade, an increasing amount of natural gas in the U.S. has been extracted using “fracking,” in which water laced with chemicals is blasted into the ground to force natural gas out of shale rock formations. 

A proposed temporary legislative moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is once again the subject of debate in the Maryland General Assembly this session, as it was two years ago, when state Delegate Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County got a moratorium bill through the state House but not the Senate.

Supporters of hydraulic fracturing argue that burning natural gas produces less deadly particulate pollution than burning coal, and less toxic mercury pollution that contaminates fish.

Drew Cobbs, Executive Director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said that he thinks the recent NOAA and Howarth estimates of methane leakage during extraction of natural gas are exaggerated.  Cobbs said that greenhouse gas pollution in the US is declining in part because power plants are switching from coal to gas, and he quoted from a federal agency’s report.

“In August, the (U.S.) Energy Information Administration released a report that basically said that our CO2 emissions levels (in 2012) were back down to 1992 levels -- which is amazing,” Cobbs said. “And one of the factors they attributed that to was the use of natural gas in the place of coal.”

The federal agency’s report, however, also noted that a mild winter and reduced demand for fuel (in part due to a sluggish economy) contributed to the declining CO2 emissions in the U.S. in 2012.

Hydraulic fracturing started booming across the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and West Virginia about seven years ago. More than 500 landowners in Western Maryland signed agreements to allow drilling under a quarter of Garrett County. But then a glut of gas production nationally caused plummeting prices and a temporary retreat by the industry, which in some cases is not renewing leases for land in Western Maryland, according to the Maryland Petroleum Council. So far, not a single well has been fracked in Maryland.

Two years ago, Governor Martin O’Malley imposed a de-facto administrative moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland, until a study of the environmental risks can be conducted –- including the possibility of drinking water contamination.

State Delegate Mizeur from Montgomery County, and State Senator Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, are co-sponsoring legislation this session that would impose a potentially more long-lasting and legally binding moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in Maryland until “sufficient safety studies are conducted…and the General Assembly has time to conclude whether further study is necessary…or whether the risk is too high and the activity must be banned,” according to a Mizeur press release.

State Senator George Edwards, who represents Western Maryland, said such a legislative moratorium would be unnecessary because of O’Malley’s administration already has a temporary hold on approving any permits for fracking.

A permanent ban would “have a tremendous negative economic impact” on his part of the state, Edwards told WYPR public radio.  With hydraulic fracturing and drilling for natural gas, “the state would gain millions of dollars, through taxes.  Also, Garrett and Allegany counties, where it is, would gain millions and millions of dollars, over the years.”

Last week, O’Malley proposed $1.5 million for a study of fracking’s potential environmental impact as part of his budget for next fiscal year.  The legislature, however, must now approve the funds.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, among others, are pushing for approval of this funding. They chanted outside the State House recently, “No Studies? No Fracking! No Studies, No Fracking!....We want the facts!”

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation



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There is also the very real possibility of groundwater contamination in the event of a cracked well casing. In addition the millions of gallons of groundwater used in the process could result in lowering of the water table requiring private well owners to install new wells to a deeper aquifer. The ramifications of extracting natural gas are greater than the benefits. Should the groundwater supply become contaminated it could have severe consequences for thousands of people, as many municipal water systems withdraw from the same aquifers as many private wells,

Yes, Cheryl. Indeed, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, improper or poorly installed well casings often lead to water contamination.

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