Natural gas was billed as a bridge fuel, but new reporting shows just how dangerous fracking is for our planet.
For years, energy companies have claimed that natural gas obtained through fracking was a cleaner alternative to coal. This idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel was pretty simple on the surface: these big companies said natural gas produces lower carbon emissions than coal and was more readily available than renewables like wind and solar energy, making it a supposedly sensible option for the country and our planet while we worked to ramp up use of clean energy sources.
This idea certainly made for good business. Just 15 years ago, natural gas was the number three energy source in the US, narrowly trailing nuclear but well behind coal. By 2019, natural gas had overtaken both and was by far the top energy source in America.
But from the beginning, there was a big climate issue with fracking for natural gas as a bridge fuel: methane. While burning natural gas does emit less carbon than burning coal (though importantly, it does still emit plenty of CO2), fracking emits vastly more methane, primarily arising from leakage. And that’s a major problem.
A MORE POTENT PROBLEM THAN CARBON IN THE SHORT-TERM
According to National Geographic, “on a 20-year timescale, a methane molecule is roughly 90 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than a molecule of carbon dioxide.” And while over a several-hundred-years period carbon is the more potent gas, methane has been responsible for about a fifth of global warming despite staying in the atmosphere for a relatively short amount of time.
There continues to be debate around what has been responsible for the rise in global methane emissions since 2007, since different types of methane in the atmosphere can be difficult to quantify accurately. However, recent research indicates that shale-gas production (aka fracking) in the United States may have contributed more than half of all the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally. In other words, the increased natural gas production that’s getting credit for a slight reduction in energy-sector carbon emissions should be getting a big portion of the blame for the massive increase in methane, an even more potent heat-trapping gas in the near-term.
Over the last decade, as fracking wells have produced more and more natural gas, this posed a particular and urgent problem. But now, wells are closing in historic numbers – due in large part to a combination of falling renewable energy prices, the collapse of the oil bubble, and the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WELL SHUTS DOWN?
The closures of these wells should, theoretically, have meant an end to the methane leaks that pose such a dire threat to our shared future. But if you’re beginning to guess that the natural gas companies who promised their product was an environmentally friendly bridge fuel weren’t exactly on the up and up, you’d be right.
New reporting from the New York Times this month has exposed that abandoned fracking wells are still spewing highly potent methane gas into the atmosphere, endangering us all. Infrared cameras set up outside of shuttered wells found that even though the fracking stopped, methane is still pouring into the atmosphere.
In fact, Robert Schuwerk, executive director for North America at Carbon Tracker, told the Times that these abandoned wells are actually leaking more methane than when they were in operation.
“They’re sitting there and they’re leaking. And they’re much leakier than a well that’s still in production and being monitored, although those leak, too,” Schuwerk explained.
It seems that when companies had a motivation to wring every drop of profit out of the gas they were fracking, they were at least trying to prevent leaks. Now, not so much.
Think about the big picture here: the massive rise in methane emissions at least partially attributed to the natural gas industry happened when they were trying their best to prevent it. Now, with no business imperative to capture that methane gas, companies are leaving their wells to pollute in perpetuity.
As the Times reporters put it: “[I]n the wake of this economic carnage is a potential environmental disaster — unprofitable wells that will be abandoned or left untended, even as they continue leaking planet-warming pollutants, and a costly bill for taxpayers to clean it all up.”
That’s because many of these dirty energy companies have filed for bankruptcy, meaning they can’t be forced to clean up their mess unless a bankruptcy judge orders it. In many cases, our planet is left at the back of the line behind a long queue of lenders and creditors.
CASHING OUT – AND STICKING US WITH THE BILL
If paying to fix the environmental catastrophes ushered in by big energy companies who cut and run seems absurd, the reporters unearthed some more news you may find even more stunning (or not, if you’ve watched how Big Polluters have operated in recent decades).
The top executives at these energy companies are taking big payouts, even as they claim there’s no money to seal the leaking fracking wells. In one example, the New York Times found a fracking CEO got $8.5 million while his company filed for bankruptcy. In another case, top employees received a cool $6.7 million combined – three days before their company filed for bankruptcy.
It’s an all-too-common story: Big Polluters wreak environmental havoc to turn a quick profit, cash out when the going gets rough, and leave all of us to deal with the dangerous consequences.
A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE
If it wasn’t clear by now, let’s be explicit: fracking for natural gas is not a short-term, mid-term, or long-term solution to the climate crisis. It is not a middle ground way to slow emissions, nor is it an effective business strategy.
It’s part of the problem.
And as recent reporting has shown, we should know better than to take these big energy companies at their word.
- Natural gas isn’t a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy future.
- Fracking for natural gas releases highly potent, heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere.
- As fracking wells shut down, big energy companies are leaving them unattended to spew more methane.
- Meanwhile, big energy company executives are taking handsome payouts as their companies file for bankruptcy.
- It’s just another example of why we can’t take big energy companies at their word on the climate crisis