Fracking is twice as bad for climate as coal - will the Climate Change Committee ban it?

Gas tanks at a fracking well on the Marcellus Shale in North Central Pennsylvania, USA. Photo: Gerry Dincher via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Gas tanks at a fracking well on the Marcellus Shale in North Central Pennsylvania, USA. Photo: Gerry Dincher via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
The UK government is all for fracking, writes Dr Robin Russell-Jones, but on climate grounds alone it should be banned. Evidence from the US shows that shale gas is twice as dirty as coal from a climate viewpoint due to 'fugitive emissions' of methane. That makes fracking incompatible with the UK's climate change commitments and the Paris Agreement - as the CCC may soon rule.
We have been unofficially informed that the CCC has accepted our data on fugitive emissions of methane - and that shale gas is twice as bad as coal from a climate change perspective. In other words fracking is likely to be banned.

Fracking has aroused huge controversy in the UK, mainly in England, as there are moratoriums on fracking in Scotland and Wales.

There is very little public support for fracking and virtually no local support with anti-fracking groups springing up wherever fracking companies apply for permission to drill.

Indeed to get the programme off the ground the UK Government has taken away responsibility for permission to drill from the local councils - and has had to offer generous tax incentives to fracking companies to make the industry financially viable. That was before the price of gas fell to one third of its peak value last year.

Opposition is based mainly around local impacts such as the risk of earthquakes, health risks to the local population, and intrusion into the English countryside by hundreds if not thousands of drilling platforms and lorries carrying waste products away from the fracking site.

This is understandable. Each well requires 6 million gallons of water plus sand, chemicals and lubricants, and produces at least 3 million gallons of waste which requires disposal, some of it in facilities licensed to handle radioactive material.

Warning signals from the US

In the United States they were extremely cavalier about disposal as the fracking industry were granted exemptions from the Clean Water and crucially the Clean Air Act by the Bush administration, the so-called Cheney loop-hole. This allowed fracking companies in the US to produce shale gas and oil well below the true cost.

In the UK the industry, should it ever get off the ground, will be far more tightly regulated. In addition the shale deposits are much deeper than in the US and will be correspondingly more expensive to extract. In Poland the fracking companies gave up after two years because the geology was too difficult.

There is shale gas in both the North and South of England and oil has been discovered close to Gatwick airport, though it is not clear how much of this is in shale. It is extremely doubtful whether any of this will ever be exploited, not because of the local opposition, which is ferocious, but because of the global warming impact of shale gas which is 97% methane.

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 87 times greater than an equivalent mass of CO2 over a 20 year time frame. According to Professor Tom Wigley, the break-even point for gas over coal is 2%. In other words if fugitive emissions of methane exceed 2% of production, then gas is no better than coal from a climate change perspective.

Professor Nick Cowern and recently reviewed all of the data on methane emissions from both conventional and unconventional gas production, and submitted our evidence to the UK Committee on Climate Change chaired by Lord Deben in February of this year.

We have been unofficially informed that the CCC has accepted our data on fugitive emissions of methane - and that shale gas is twice as bad as coal from a climate change perspective. In other words fracking is likely to be banned.

We were assured that the CCC report - which was provided to the Government in March - would be published no later than May. But it has yet to appear. Might this be because our conclusions present some stark choices for politicians, pose challenges to the shale industry in the US and indeed call into question the future viability of the fossil fuel industry world-wide?

Methane escapes turn the 'gas advantage' negative

Because burning gas is more efficient  than coal, it provides a 50% advantage in terms of emissions of CO2 emitted per unit of energy. However that is only half the story because of the methane that escapes into the atmosphere during the exploration, production, storage, and distribution phases of the gas life-cycle: in other words all of the stages upstream of the power station.

There is a large difference in fugitive emissions between conventional and unconventional methods of gas extraction. A large reservoir of natural gas may require only a handful of platforms to extract the underlying resource, which typically is under pressure and therefore relatively simple to release and capture.

By contrast, with unconventional sources such as shale gas, the resource is present as bubbles of gas within shale rock formations. Extraction is extremely challenging, it requires the injection of sand, water, chemicals and lubricants under pressure, and thousands of well-heads may be required to locate and extract significant quantities of gas. The potential for leaks, whether accidental or deliberate, is correspondingly greater.

Atmospheric monitoring from the early 1990s, before fracking became a major issue, demonstrates that conventional gas production is associated with methane losses of at least 1%, so the advantage of gas over coal is 25%, not 50%. Second liquefaction is extremely energy intensive adding 20-25% to the carbon footprint, which means that Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is no better than coal from a climate change perspective. 

The situation with shale gas is far worse. Satellite data demonstrates fugitive emissions that are an order of magnitude greater during the extraction and storage phase, with  average losses, including distribution representing 6-8% of production. The figure of 6% makes shale gas two times worse than coal from a climate change perspective.

Climate Change Committee may rule against fracking

Although the CCC has yet to publish its report, we have been unofficially informed that it has accepted our data on fugitive emissions of methane - and that shale gas is twice as bad as coal from a climate change perspective.

In other words fracking in the UK is likely to be banned by the UK Climate Change Committee since not even Carbon Capture and Storage can compensate for these losses which are occurring upstream of the power station.

Furthermore there is no regulatory regimen anywhere in the world that will succeed in reducing fugitive emissions by an order of magnitude without putting the shale operators out of business. The same strictures apply to shale oil though our paper did not examine this specifically.

Our data has been the subject of intense interest in the House of Commons where a fracking bill is being piloted through its second reading by Geraint Davies MP, a member of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee.

Attendance at a briefing for MP's on 9th March in the Palmerston Room of the House of Commons, where Professor Cowern and I presented data to MPs, demonstrated the depth of concern about the global warming impact of methane in general and fracking in particular. In addition there has been a fierce debate in the correspondence columns of the Financial Times which will make investors extremely wary of supporting fracking companies in the UK. (Letters March 4, 7 and 14)

Over 50% of the rise in methane is from oil and gas

So where does this leave fracking companies in the US ? Well so far there has been little if any awareness of methane emissions, but this is changing rapidly. For example, Obama has called for tighter control over fugitive emissions.

And a very recent study from Harvard, published in Geophysical Research Letters by Turner et al used satellite data over the US and found a 30% increase in methane releases since 2002. Their methodology did not allow them to pinpoint the exact source of these releases, but it is highly likely that this is the result of the increased fracking activity by shale oil and shale gas operations in the US since the turn of the century.

These observations certainly support the thesis that Professor Cowen and I have put forward in our evidence to the UK Committee on Climate Change; that fugitive emissions from fracking are far higher than suggested by official surveys. Furthermore the authors of the Harvard paper calculate that the emissions from North America would account for between 30% and 60% of the increase in atmospheric levels of methane observed globally since 2008.

Professor Nick Cowern and I have studied these data in more detail and have reached some further, rather alarming conclusions. Each methane source exhibits a characteristic isotopic signature, the ratio  of Carbon 13 to Carbon 12.

Against the standard reference point (zero) which is C 13 heavy, methane emissions from fossil fuel sources score minus 40, whilst methane emissions from the Arctic score -60 to -80. By mixing these two sources together  one arrives at a score of -50 to - 55 which is the signature for methane emissions from wetland sources.

Until now many people have assumed, quite reasonably, that the rising levels of atmospheric methane globally is from natural sources - and therefore beyond our control, or at least nothing to do with fracking. This unfortunately is not the case. Our data shows that over 50% of the rise in methane is from oil and gas activity, and that this is actually obscuring rising emissions of methane from the Arctic 

The Arctic methane time bomb

Although methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after CO2, it is very difficult to model. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have adopted a very cautious approach to methane - cautious in the sense that they know there is a methane time-bomb ticking away in the permafrost at high latitudes; and also lurking within the Arctic sea-bed in the form of clathrates.

It is estimated that there is more than 1 billion tonnes of methane locked up in permafrost, twice what is already present in the atmosphere. There is reckoned to be 500 billion tonnes of methane locked up in Arctic ice-shelfs and the sea-bed. As global temperatures rise, huge quantities of methane will be released.

Peter Wadhams and co-workers from Cambridge University have calculated that 50 billion tonnes of methane could be released from the East Siberian Ice Shelf, which is within 50 metres of the surface, and that this would add another 0.6 degrees to global warming. That is a lot when you consider that thus far the world has warmed by just one degree since the start of the industrial revolution.

The problem is that no one knows exactly when this is likely to occur, so the IPCC describe it as a high impact, low probability event, and then exclude it from their models predicting likely temperature rises over this century. Other people take the view that such an event is inevitable and that we are playing Russian Roulette with the future survival of human civilisation as we know it. Furthermore our data indicates that this process has already started.

It is one of the main reasons why the global warming target was lowered in Paris last year from 2 to 1.5 degrees Celsius. For that target to be met, we need to abandon fossil fuels in favour of renewables and energy conservation so that 100% of electricity is being generated from non-fossil fuel source by 2030.

If we do nothing, we are looking at an environmental catastrophe that human civilization is unlikely to survive. And if we fail in this endeavor, I fear that future generations will never forgive us.



Dr Robin Russell-Jones MA FRCP FRCPath is a medical doctor, environmental scientist and Chair of Help Rescue the Planet, an educational charity dedicated to minimising air pollution and mitigating climate change . Donations welcome!

Books & articles

  • Lead versus Health: The Biological Effects of Low Lead Exposure. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1983. Jointly edited with Michael Rutter, FRCP FRS, Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry.
  • Radiation and Health: The Biological Effects of Low Level Exposure to Ionising Radiation. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1987.  Jointly edited with Professor Sir Richard Southwood, FRS, Chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) Former Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and future Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University.
  • Ozone depletion: Health and Environmental Consequences. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1989.  Jointly edited with Tom Wigley, Professor of Climatic Research at the University of East Anglia.
  • Peer reviewed articles in scientific journals.
  • Editor reviewed articles in scientific journals.


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