At the 2015 UN Conferences of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, world leaders should understand that fracking equals climate disaster.
Recent carbon dioxide budgets from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) make it clear that fracking is incompatible with stopping global warming at below 1.5°C, and it is increasingly clear that warming above and beyond 1.5°C is too dangerous.
Historical emissions of climate pollution have already driven a 1°C increase in global temperature. The IPCC has stated “recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” The effects include more violent storms, droughts, floods, acidifying and rapidly warming oceans, and altered growing seasons.
Now, concerns over current impacts, and over risks of new and abrupt changes from so-called tipping points, have delegates to Paris, scientists, and activists calling for global warming to be stopped at 1.5°C.
Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and it is leaking from every stage of the natural gas system — from well sites to processing plants and compressor stations to beneath city streets. When it comes to the relative impacts on our climate, these leaks of methane are why natural gas is about as bad as coal when used for generating electricity, and why natural gas is about as bad as oil when used to fuel cars, trucks, industrial boilers and residential furnaces.
Fracking’s Climate Threats Don’t Stop At Methane
The Obama Administration has embraced fracking for shale gas, in particular, as good for the climate. It is working on rules to address methane leaks from the industry. But even if these leaks could be entirely eliminated, the carbon dioxide from burning fracked natural gas still spells climate disaster.
The IPCC’s recent assessment on climate change included carbon dioxide budgets: each one gives the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that could be emitted into the atmosphere after 2010, corresponding to a given chance of staying under a given level of warming.
To get a sense of what a carbon budget means, two questions are useful: How long will it take to break a carbon budget, given current emissions? And how much coal, oil and natural gas will have to be kept safely in the ground to meet a carbon budget?
The IPCC stated that to have a better than 66 percent chance of avoiding a 1.5°C rise in temperature, only about 400 gigatonnes (Gt, or trillion kilograms) of carbon dioxide could be emitted, starting in 2011. But from 2011 through 2015, about 180 Gt of carbon dioxide was emitted from burning fossil fuels.
That leaves about 220 Gt of carbon dioxide — equivalent to about five more years of emissions under current trends — if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding 1.5°C of warming.
(Note that the 400 Gt figure is from the IPCC authors rounding to the nearest 50 Gt, which colors what “about” 220 Gt means.)
The Carbon Budget Bottom Line
How much carbon, or hydrocarbons, must be kept in the ground?
Consider just natural gas. Carbon dioxide emissions from burning all of the “conventional” natural gas in the world would amount to about 800 Gt. And burning all of the estimated global resources of “unconventional” natural gas — that is, burning all global shale gas, tight gas and coalbed methane from fracking — would add another 5,600 Gt of carbon dioxide.
So, not even counting oil or coal, that is 6,400 Gt — 6.4 quadrillion kilograms! — of carbon dioxide from natural gas alone, or about 29 times the IPCC budget for having a decent chance of stabilizing the climate below 1.5°C of warming.
In other words, assuming zero emissions from coal and oil starting January 1, 2016, about 97 percent of all known natural gas must be kept in the ground.
Real Climate Leadership Would Keep It In The Ground
Clearly, there is no room in the carbon dioxide budget for widespread and intensive extraction of natural gas. We simply can’t afford it, and anyone saying otherwise is either fooling themselves—or you. Leaks of methane, which are notoriously underestimated, just make matters worse by amplifying warming in the near term, over the next decades.
And yet, the United States, Canada and Mexico — in lock step with the oil and gas industry, big banks and think tanks — are pushing for “integration” of fossil fuel energy markets in North America. Under the guise of “energy security,” a primary aim is maximizing oil and natural gas production through widespread drilling and fracking.
The United States cannot claim the mantle of climate leadership, while at the same time it pushes this definition of energy security, auctions off oil and gas for fracking on public lands, doles out billions of taxpayer dollars every year in tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry, and locks in decades more climate pollution by facilitating the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, such as with new pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals.
The only path to American energy security, economic security and climate stability is to totally remake our energy systems around efficiency, conservation, renewables, and electricity storage with proven and rapidly emerging solutions.
We have the technology, capacity and wealth, as a nation, to do this; we just lack the political will.