While President Obama and Mitt Romney were busy extolling the virtues of coal and natural gas during Tuesday's debate sequence on the high cost of gasoline, they neglected to mention the costs to the environment now and for future generations by relying on gasoline and fossil fuels for energy.
The words “climate change” were never uttered during the debate. Risks to the environment? Come again?
All of which leads to the point of this piece – yet another danger from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil: methane waste.
Writing in the NRDC staff blog, Peter Lehner, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s executive director, says that fracking for oil in North Dakota “is so lucrative that when natural gas bubbles up alongside the oil, most oil companies simply view it as waste.”
It’s cheaper in the short term to simply burn the gas off than it is to build the infrastructure it would take to pipe and sell it.
If this is reminiscent of what happened during the Vietnam War where a village was destroyed in order to save it, that’s because the logic is the same: dumb, perverse and criminal.
“Across the North Dakota prairie, natural gas flares light up the night sky like huge torches,” Lehner writes. Every day the oil companies burn off enough gas to heat 500,000 homes. “It is astounding to discover how much natural gas we are wasting every day, either through burning or poorly managed leaks,” he continues. “By reducing this waste, we can clean the air and water, cut global warming pollution, and, as is the case when we become more efficient--make money.”
Natural gas, which is mostly methane, is a potent greenhouse gas, pound-for-pound at least 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period and as much as 100 times more powerful over a 20-year period, according to the NRDC.
Could it be that releasing large and increasing amounts of methane into the atmosphere will accelerate climate change? Well, duh!
The World Bank estimates that in North Dakota alone, natural gas flares produce the same amount of global warming pollution as 2.5 million cars. The oil and gas industry wastes two to three percent of all the natural gas in the country, according to the EPA, due to flaring, leaks, and other waste. “Other experts think this number is even higher, and that unconventional gas production, like fracking, wastes up to 8 percent,” says Lehner.
Some companies in the energy industry understand that regulating fracking with strong environmental safeguards will protect health and dramatically reduce methane waste. It also will encourage the industry to become more efficient.
The NRDC reports that many companies are using commercially available technologies to control methane leakage. A process called “green completion,” for example, captures liquids and gases coming out of wells after they are fracked, and routes them to a separate tank for processing.
Companies that have used this process call it smart business. A spokesman for Devon Energy, based in Oklahoma City, told Bloomberg News: "We are capturing value that would otherwise be lost. It does make good economic sense for us.”
In addition to green completions, there are other cost-effective techniques, such as better pipes, and improved monitoring and maintenance, which pay for themselves within a few years or even months, that can significantly reduce methane leakage. Lehner says, “If these practices were widespread, we could stop 80 percent of methane waste across the industry, and recover $2 billion worth of natural gas. It would reduce global warming pollution equivalent to the emissions of 50 coal-fired power plants, or 40 million passenger vehicles.”
We know that fracking come armed with a load of risks, safety, health and environmental issues. But since it apparently will be around for the foreseeable future, fracking should be made as safe and efficient as possible, and a precious energy source should not be torched.
[Image: Mossmorran flare - DSCN3758 by Aloysious A Gruntpuddock via Flickr}