A new report out of Cornell University could throw a monkey wrench into plans to increase use of natural gas in the United States. The report says that natural gas produced by high volume hydraulic fracturing has a higher greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas, oil and coal production.
On Monday, The Hill released a summary of a report by Cornell researchers Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea. While the report was embargoed until later in the week, the premature release of the information reveals some potentially damning findings for those advocating natural gas as a cleaner alternative to other domestic energy sources.
The report, titled "Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations," focuses on methane gas emissions produced by fracking wells. Fracking is a process used by natural gas companies to access previously inaccessible pockets of gas by injecting a mixture of water and chemicals deep into the ground at a high pressure. The Cornell study shows that methane levels resulting from fracking are much higher than most believed. “These methane emissions are at least 30 percent more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas. The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured — as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids,” according to the abstract of the report.
The abstract went on to compare the footprint of methane to the footprint left by other domestic energy sources. “The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”
The timing of the premature release of this report is interesting. For one thing, increasing natural gas production has been a talking point for all sides of the political spectrum on Capitol Hill. President Obama has touted the use natural gas in recent speeches that focused on increasing the amount of energy produced in the United States. The report’s release also comes the day before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife is to hold a hearing entitled, Natural Gas Drilling: Public Health and Environmental Impacts. On Thursday, the House Science Committee had scheduled a hearing on hydraulic fracturing, but that hearing was abruptly canceled on Monday morning.
It will be interesting to see if the Cornell study is mentioned in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, and if so, what members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have to say about it.