In Dallas and other cities across the country, local transit agencies are proud to announce that their buses run on natural gas. Natural gas puts less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than diesel, so the switch to natural gas is supposed to be a positive step to slow global warming. "We had an opportunity when DART was replacing their buses to help them transition to a cleaner fuel," says Ken Nicholson, an executive at natural gas company Clean Energy Fuels, in a promotional video about the company's partnership with Dallas. By early 2015, DART announced that it had replaced most of its fleet with buses running on natural gas. Converting to natural gas fuel "offered both a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fuel cost savings," DART said.
But study after study has shown that the environmental benefits of burning natural gas are negated by the process used to extract the gas: fracking. Or, more specifically, the methane that leaks during fracking. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that makes global warming worse and is documented to be a major by-product of fracking. In February 2014, a study published in the journal Science concluded that fracked wells were leaking so much methane into the atmosphere that it negated the benefits of switching buses to natural gas. Another recent review of 11 research papers shows that methane emissions in North Texas' Barnett Shale region are 50 percent higher than the figures estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the short-term, methane leaks from fracked wells have been blamed for problems ranging from flammable water coming out of homeowners' faucets to a Delaware-sized gas plume floating over the state of New Mexico.
So now, finally, the EPA is trying to do something to cut back all that methane. During a hearing Wednesday at Dallas City Hall, and at hearings in other cities throughout the week, the EPA is taking comments on its new proposal to force frackers to limit how much methane leaks out of their new wells. Under the EPA's plan, oil and gas companies would have to cut their methane emissions by around 40 percent within 10 years, a measure that local drillers find to be absolutely terrifying. Under Texas' current loose regulations, there are no guidelines or limits on how much methane they can leak.
Locally, drillers are saying they've already started cutting back on methane emissions, so we should just trust them to keep working on it. "Instead of allowing these accomplishments to continue, EPA has decided to arbitrarily insert itself," writes Ed Ireland, the Barnett Shale's chief drilling lobbyist, "unleashing a trifecta of of unnecessary and costly regulations that drive up the cost of energy and slow new job creation." And for months, the Western Energy Alliance, representing all the big national players in oil and gas, has argued that the proposed regulations are expensive, job-killing and totally unnecessary now.
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As much as we'd like to trust them that they're really going to work on the whole polluting-earth's-atmosphere-with-methane thing, our feelings are still a little hurt by the previous Exxon-downplaying-global-warming thing. A recent investigation by Inside Climate News found that Exxon researchers have actually known since the 1980s that they were probably contributing to a dangerous global warming trend, but then decided it would be better to publicly mock its own researchers and downplay global warming for years rather than do anything to help.