Nearly 200 countries signed a historic agreement to combat climate change last Saturday during the global climate summit in Paris. To achieve that goal would mean a massive slow-down of carbon emissions, climate scientists warn, an effective "de-carbonization" of the world economy.
But it's not just carbon consumption that scientists warn needs to drop dramatically. In Paris and elsewhere, another important gas has been largely ignored: methane. While methane has many industrial sources, lately its biggest source has been fracking. Plumes of methane are released when faulty cement well liners and steel casings allow the gas to seep to the surface, tainting water supplies at the surface.
Methane is the latest risk associated with fracking, especially here in North Texas' Barnett Shale. Last week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal released a study claiming that methane emissions in the Barnett Shale are 90 percent higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency's figures suggest.
The study, financed by the Environmental Defense Fund, reviewed 12 published research papers that calculate local methane emissions. The study zeroes in on Texas’ Barnett Shale and uses "a new, more accurate way to determine the total amount of methane escaping into the atmosphere from the region’s oil and gas production, processing and transportation," the EDF writes. The new methods included using aircraft with methane sensors to provide top-down readings of methane over wide areas.
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Environmentalists have accused the oil industry of downplaying the amount of methane that leaks from the fracking process. Environmentalists, scientists and homeowners say that the most obvious sign of a methane leak is the flammable water that has been documented coming out of some homeowners' faucets. But the more grave, existential threat is how potently methane warms the planet. Figures vary, but most environmental groups or researchers pinpoint methane as around 30 times more potent at capturing heat and warming the planet than carbon dioxide. This August, the EPA finally proposed new rules that would force frackers to install new equipment on wells to better capture methane.
In an unsigned statement about the new, EDF-funded methane study, the EPA tells the Observer:
EPA is reviewing the EDF study on methane emissions from natural gas systems in the Barnett Shale. Substantial amounts of new information on the oil and gas sector have become available recently and additional information will become available in the coming years from a number of channels, including EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting program, industry organizations and research studies by government, academic, and industry researchers. In addition, the actions in the White House methane strategy, which target both bottom-up and top-down measurement approaches, will improve the overall level of confidence in methane emissions data. EPA will continue to refine its emission estimates to reflect the most robust and up to date information available.
In other words, officials are sort of acknowledging that there are probably better ways to calculate methane leaks, and they're working on it. In Texas and elsewhere, the EPA has a history of beginning investigations into whether methane has leaked into water wells, only to drop them. The EPA should have the tools to monitor the problem and enforce a solution. Whether they are willing to tackle the problem aggressively remains to be seen.