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Shale Gas and Climate Change — A Burning Issue

On November 6th, thousands of protesters staged a colorful encirclement of the White House in Washington D.C., protesting against the Keystone XL pipeline project and against expansion in extraction of tar sands oil.  Within just four days after this bold direct action, Obama ordered a thorough review of the pipeline plan and suspended decision-making on its construction.1  The US President thus seemed to be bowing to the massive pressure which the environmental movement had brought to bear against the scheme.  Yet critical observers were quick to point out that the victory may be just temporary, and that there is an urgent need to keep up political pressure — not just against use of tar sands oil, but also to oppose the tapping of shale gas, i.e. unconventional natural gas.  Drilling for shale gas has a history in the US.  But over the last decade, extraction of the gas has skyrocketed, and a huge number of drilling projects are on the drawing board — with Obama’s blessing.  Hence the dire need to scrutinize what implications such extraction, called “fracking,” has for human health and nature, in particular for debates on climate change.

At first there seems little reason for alarm.  It is common knowledge that CO2 emissions from the burning of natural gas are substantially lower than those from the other main fossil fuels, coal and oil.  Perhaps as much as a third less.  Yet in 2011 a major public controversy has erupted in the US over shale gas, paralleling that over tar sands oil.  Critics point out that drilling companies consistently underplay the risks from fracking.  What are the facts?  Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is somewhat comparable to the in-situ mining of tar sands oil which relies on high-pressure injection of steam into the subsoil to separate oil from tar sands.  Here again, to obtain shale gas, high pressure is applied so as to pump vast quantities of chemical sludge into layers of shale rock located deep in the earth.  This results in the fracturing of the shale and the release of natural gas trapped in the rocks.  Truly massive quantities of water are required to undertake these operations.  Also required are a range of chemicals, including lead and other toxics.  Further, whereas a portion of the sludge is brought back to the surface and stored in waste ponds, a major part of the sludge is dissipated and slowly seeps back to the surface.  According to some reports the percentage is 50% of the total!  Companies involved in fracking are not even obliged to disclose what chemicals they use, the lame argument being that these are “trade secrets.”  Hence a full picture of the environmental implications is hard to draw.  Yet concerned scientists have repeatedly pointed at the risks to drinking water sources in areas close to the shale gas drilling wells.

A second risk that has made the headlines in the US is that regarding releases of methane.  Methane, as is well known by now, is the second most important greenhouse gas next to CO2.  It stays in the atmosphere for a far shorter period of time, but within that time span absorbs far more of the sun’s heat than does CO2 through its century-long stay in the atmosphere.  Further, a study published by the NASA Goddard Institute in 2009 suggested that methane is not only very potent.  Its effects also get amplified through interaction with aerosols in the atmosphere.  In yet another study, brought out in April last by a research team of Cornell University, the “fugitive” methane releases fromfrackingwere specifically highlighted.  The study concluded that substantial quantities of methane are leaked into the atmosphere as the drilling wells are struck and as the shale gas is brought to the surface and marketed.  Though published in a peer review magazine, the study was questioned by skeptics.  But then it should be seen as additional to what the US government’s own researchers had already pointed out.  A late 2010 report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the government’s watchdog, contained concrete figures comparing methane releases from conventional and unconventional gas wells.  Here again, the evidence went straight against extraction of shale gas.

Now, the problems of assessment are compounded by the fact that shale gas drilling is largely unregulated, nay has been deregulated, even as the industry’s reach grew, i.e. in the period when the need for regulation was largest.  Since they are exempted from disclosing elementary data, the drilling companies are not only free to use toxic chemicals with impunity.  They do not even need to reveal their measurements of methane leaks.  Further, in a move that has gained notoriety, companies drilling for shale gas in 2005 were exempted from complying with the US’s Safe Drinking Water Act!  Under the Bush administration, responsibility for overseeing the sector’s activities was taken away from the EPA.  As to guarding for the safety of drinking water, since 2009, some US Congressmen belonging to the Democratic Party have thrice attempted to bring shale gas drilling back under the concerned Act, but so far without success.  Hence, the example of the fracking of shale gas retells the story of deregulation which has been so characteristic of the US’s and the world’s financial sector in the era of neo-liberalism.  In both cases, the profit interests of corporation and of a narrow section of company executives have been put far above the welfare of the world’s population.

Right at a time when the world is preparing for its next Climate Summit to be held at the end of November, the extraction of unconventional oil and natural gas has come to the fore as a burning issue.  Time is running out.  Aside from the US, Canada, another world producer of natural gas, too is planning to vastly increase reliance on shale gas extraction. Yet here too public debate has picked up.  In September the Pembina Institute, a critical research centre on energy, has brought out a special report on shale gas and climate change.  Along with the methane releases, the report underlines the large energy needs associated with fracking.  A vast amount of energy is required to pump the chemical sludge under high pressure into the layers of shale rocks.  Hence, if extraction of shale gas is expanded, as foreseen, Canada very likely will fail to reach its emission reduction targets, and its emission levels might even go up!  The question for proponents of the fossil fuel industry once again is this: with the maintenance of a 2 degree ceiling on climate change already beyond reach, how much more do you want humanity and other species to be put at risk?  Clearly, broadly formulated international objectives to limit damage no longer suffice.  If we are to avoid runaway climate change, we need a combination of stringent prohibitions on the most destructive forms of extraction and global policies to limit energy use.  Why not buttress the demand for a ban on all drilling for tar sands oil and shale gas?  Why not add the demand for a global and equitable regime of energy rationing?


1  For the story on tar sands oil, see Peter Custers, “The Keystone XL Pipeline: Will Humanity’s Survival Interests Prevail?” (Countercurrents, October 20, 2011).

Peter Custers is the author of Questioning Globalized Militarism.

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