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Of all the many and varied consequences of fracking (water contamination, injured workers, earthquakes, the list goes on) one of the least understood is so-called “fugitive” methane emissions. Methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas, and it escapes into the atmosphere at every stage of production: at wells, in processing plants, and in pipes on its way to your house. According to a new study, it could become one of the worst climate impacts of the fracking boom—and yet, it’s one of the easiest to tackle right away. Best of all, fixing the leaks is good for the bottom line.
According to the World Resources Institute, natural gas producers allow $1.5 billion worth of methane to escape from their operations every year. That might sound like small change to an industry that drilled up some $66.5 billion worth of natural gas in 2012 alone, but it’s a big deal for the climate: While methane only makes up 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (20 percent of which comes from cow farts), it packs a global warming punch 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
“Those leaks are everywhere,” said WRI analyst James Bradbury, so fixing them would be “super low-hanging fruit.”
The problem, he says, is that right now those emissions aren’t directly regulated by the EPA. In President Obama’s first term, the EPA set new requirements for capturing other types of pollutants that escape from fracked wells, using technology that also, incidentally, limits methane. But without a cap on methane itself, WRI finds, the potent gas is free to escape at incredible rates, principally from leaky pipelines. The scale of the problem is hard to overstate: The Energy Department found that leaking methane could ultimately make natural gas—which purports to be a “clean” fossil fuel—even more damaging than coal, and an earlier WRI study found that fixing methane leaks would be the single biggest step the US could take toward meeting its long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals.