Last week, the Obama administration heard from large environmental groups about the need to directly regulate emissions of methane –– a potent greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas. The Obama administration has not been listening, as evidenced two days later when it dropped its Fall 2014 Statements of Regulatory Priorities for this fiscal year. The administration’s shortcoming does not surprise us, but from our perspective, the prospect of methane regulations makes for a Trojan horse.
Consider that the oil and gas industry, backed by billions in investments from Wall Street and abroad, needs natural gas to be seen as more of a climate solution than a climate problem. These interests expect to profit from widespread and intensive drilling and fracking for decades.
Not only the industry, but the Obama Administration have both painted natural gas as a “climate friendly” alternative fuel. Given the reality of the climate threat, however, fracking for natural gas is proving to be more of a “gangplank” to climate chaos than a clean “bridge fuel” to the future. Methane emissions are a large part of the reason why, but significant carbon dioxide emissions also stem from burning natural gas. Just looking at carbon dioxide alone, there’s way too much gas; almost all of it has to stay underground, just like the oil.
For years, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been partnering with the oil and gas industry and academics to try to understand the extent of methane emissions and to help the industry try to solve its methane problem. The methane, along with other harmful hydrocarbons (e.g., benzene), comes from leaks from all segments of the oil and natural gas system. At first, the collaborative effort was focused on determining exactly how much methane was leaking. Several years later, we just know more is leaking than official government estimates. Now, as opposition to fracking has grown among Americans, EDF, along with other groups, is pushing the oil and gas industry and the Obama administration to do something about the leaks, four years after the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board urged action.
For those living alongside oil and gas sites, any rules that reduce the size of the industry’s toxic plumes would be long overdue, after having experienced the spills and inhaled the pollution. EDF claims that methane emissions could be reduced to half with simple measures, at next to no cost for industry because the methane saved from leaks will create more product to sell. If it makes so much economic sense, why has the industry not already been using these measures? Furthermore, why should a precondition for new rules be that they come at next to no cost for industry? The oil and gas companies enjoy billions of dollars in preferential tax treatment.
For those in communities targeted for future drilling and fracking, rules to address methane are also cold comfort, given the many dimensions of fracking’s local impacts.
As for global warming, to the extent that any rules to address methane would greenwash fracking, such rules risk leading to ever more intensive and widespread drilling and fracking. Methane rules that greenwash the climate impacts of fracking would accelerate the suite of U.S. energy policies already set to:
- increase demand for shale gas for domestic electricity, transportation, and heating;
- increase drilling and fracking on public lands and offshore;
- and sink billions in decades-lasting infrastructure to export liquefied natural gas, supplied by widespread drilling and fracking.
Widespread and intensive fracking is even central to Obama’s recent partnership with China, as large amounts of LNG exports would go there, with promises to also export U.S. drilling and fracking technology and expertise, so oil and gas companies can get paid to extract Chinese shale gas for decades too.
So what does widespread and intensive drilling and fracking mean? It means drilling and fracking tens of thousands of new oil and gas wells each year in the United States to extract and burn as much unconventional oil and gas as possible. These wells penetrate pockets of ground water with pipes made of steel and concrete. These vertical pipes will age and degrade over time, and a large number will leak.
The local booms and busts of this drilling and fracking bring certain harms from leaks, accidents, spills, and from the footprint of the industry on a region’s economy. Climate chaos will only compound these harms.
This path is unacceptable. It’s time to face the reality of fracking’s threats, and look the Trojan horse in the mouth.