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Golden Age of Fracked Gas May Mean Dark Ages for Climate

Kimberly Garrison and Kimberly Pierce

Riverkeeper Legal Interns

The golden age of gas may mean the dark ages for the climate, according to a report released last week by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The report, “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas,” which sets out rules for industry to follow to usher in a “golden age of gas” calls into question gas’s climate benefits. The report also explains that gas’s cleaner-than-coal identity has caused some investors to believe that shale gas is equivalent to renewable energy, resulting in funds reserved for renewable energy development being diverted to gas extraction.

The IEA report comes on the heels of a new study by Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, a major investor in fossil fuels, which states that using shale gas instead of coal does nothing to help the climate.

While IEA noted that shale gas has lower carbon emissions than coal at the burning stage, it acknowledged that this does not necessarily cut emissions on a global basis. In Europe, for example, use of coal has increased 6% because the price of coal there has decreased as a result of the reduced use of coal by the United States. Thus, shale gas is not necessarily cutting emissions on a worldwide scale, but displacing them elsewhere.

Another significant concern raised both by IEA and Scottish Widows is the failure of gas companies to capture leaking shale gas, otherwise known as “fugitive methane,” released throughout the gas extraction and distribution process (shale gas consists mainly of methane – a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide). Gas companies could use

“green completion” technology to capture this fugitive methane, but according to Scottish Widows, the vast majority of companies do not, particularly in the United States where fracking is becoming increasingly prevalent. EPA issued new regulations this spring that would require use of this technology, but implementation of these regulations has been delayed until 2014.

Craig Mackenzie, author of the Scottish Widows report, estimates that the fugitive methane from shale gas extraction will wipe out any climate benefit for two to three decades unless the leakage problems are addressed, by which time global warming impacts may be irreversible. He notes that the technology needed to capture leaking gas would pay for itself, sometimes within less than a year. The IEA, in its publication, agrees that measures to capture leaking gas must be prerequisites for a further expansion of the exploitation of “unconventional” gas.

Shale gas extraction has overtaken agriculture as the largest source of methane in the United States. A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder estimated that in the Denver-Julesburg basin, 4% of the methane gas is being lost to the atmosphere – a percentage which offsets the climate benefit gas has when burned over other fossil fuels. Industry has hotly contested these and other projected numbers, but a growing body of evidence, including the IEA and Scottish Widows reports, suggest that gas’s alleged climate benefits may be nothing more than a red herring.

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