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The greenhouse-gas footprint of hydrofracking

Published On: 5/9/2011

A new study calculates the climate impact of natural gas extraction via ‘hydrofracking.'

The study, entitled ‘Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations,’ was authored by Robert Howarth (Cornell University) and colleagues and published in the journal Climatic Change (DOI: 10.1007/s10584-011-0061-5). Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘hydrofracking’, is a process that uses large volumes of water, sand and additives to fracture underground rock formations to release oil and natural gas. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide.

The study’s findings include:

Between 3.6-7.9% of the methane escapes into the atmosphere during shale-gas production due to venting and well leaks; this level is at least 30% higher than that released during conventional natural gas production.

On a 20-year time horizon, the greenhouse-gas footprint for shale gas is up to 43% higher than conventional natural gas, 50% greater than oil and 20% higher than coal for the same amount of energy produced by each of those other sources.

The researchers conclude that the “large greenhouse-gas footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.” The study’s authors encourage policymakers to account for the full greenhouse-gas footprint of unconventional gas as they chart the energy future and urge carbon trading markets, which currently have outdated models, to modify their valuations accordingly.

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