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Fracking – tipping the scales of climate change

September 2013

The UK government is urging the country to ‘get behind fracking’ in a bid to ensure energy self-sufficiency for decades to come. Every day the newspapers are filled with stories about fracking, yet why is there so little mention of the implications of hydraulic fracturing on climate change?

A recent Royal Society report on shale gas extraction looked specifically at the risks associated with seismic activity and contamination of water supplies. We’ve all heard the horror stories of ‘earthquakes’ near Blackpool, and the toxic, radioactive and flammable tap water in parts of the US. However, the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and its potential impact on climate change were not analysed in the report, nor do they seem to have been considered generally by the government. And yet many scientists suspect that the rapid exploration of unconventional gas deposits, such as shale and coal bed methane, could result in such huge methane releases that it could potentially tip the planet into an ‘alternative climate system’.

The extraction and use of shale gas produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. Most of the methane losses come from leakage during drilling as well as during flowback of the fracking fluid. Further losses occur during compression of the gas and during pipeline transport. The extraction and use of shale gas produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane.

High concentrations of natural gas were detected in routine air sampling in Denver, Colorado and were subsequently linked to emissions from a nearby hydraulic fracturing site. The results of the initial research released in February 2012 indicated that leakage rates from the wells were around four per cent of the total gas production. Most scientists are in agreement that any leakage above two per cent in gas production makes the fuel a dirty source of energy and at least as problematic as coal.

Despite the findings of this research, shale gas is being heralded as the cleanest form of fossil fuels, since it produces less carbon dioxide on burning when compared to oil and coal. Furthermore, some academics and the gas industry have branded the findings as exaggerated, but scientific data on the effects of fracking is scarce and there is no evidence to the contrary. Further studies are clearly necessary to validate the initial results and are currently being conducted by the NOAA, the UC as well as by the Environmental Defence Fund and other academic and industry parties.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) website advertises the government’s moves to create a more efficient low-carbon economy to meet legally binding targets, including reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. On the website though, there is very little reference to shale gas.
In summary, it is contingent upon the government to use scientific evidence to develop a better understanding of the possible climate implications of fracking before pushing ahead with these plans.

Julie Carter, senior environmental consultant, Argyll Environmental 




Argyll Environmental | UK & NI Ireland | Climate change

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