New Research Points To Fracking As Cause Of Spikes In Atmospheric Methane

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The amount of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas — has increased dramatically in the atmosphere since 2008. Some have suggested the increase is associated with the rise in fracking that began about the same time.

methane emissions study Cornell
Credit: Robert Howarth via Biogeosciences. This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

“Not so! Fake news!” screams the fracking industry. “We are providing a valuable service that helps make America great again by lowering our dependency on foreign energy producers. And even if a little methane leaks from our operations, that’s OK because we are keeping America safe! And besides, no one can prove where all that extra methane comes from, so go pound sand.” This, friends, is what passes for free market capitalism in America today.

Remember when your mother said, “You always get caught?” Well, researchers at Cornell have studied the spike in methane emissions closely and determined there really is a way to tell where it is coming from. It turns out methane from fracking has a slightly different chemical composition than methane from traditional natural gas or that made from coal. It has less carbon 13 relative to the amount of carbon 12 in the center of the methane molecule. That small difference proves the extra methane is coming from fracking. Busted!

Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, has been spearheading the research, which was published August 14 in Biogeosciences, a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

He says the unique carbon 13 signature means that since the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing — commonly called fracking — began, shale gas has increase its share of global natural gas production and has released more methane into the atmosphere. About two thirds of all new gas production over the last decade has been shale gas produced in the United States and Canada, according to a report by Science Daily.

It has been widely reported that tailpipe emissions from cattle as well as from wetlands are responsible for much of the methane in the atmosphere but Professor Howarth’s research suggests otherwise. The methane from those sources has a lower carbon 13 content than methane from most fossil fuels.

Unlike its slow response to carbon dioxide, the atmosphere responds quickly to changes in methane emissions. “Reducing methane now can provide an instant way to slow global warming and meet the United Nations’ target of keeping the planet well below a 2-degree Celsius average rise,” Howarth says.

Atmospheric methane levels had previously risen during the last two decades of the 20th century, but leveled off in the first decade of 21st century. Then, atmospheric methane levels increased dramatically from 2008-14, from about 570 teragrams (570 billion tons) annually to about 595 teragrams, due to global human-caused methane emissions in the last 11 years.

“This recent increase in methane is massive,” Howarth said. “It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen and shale gas is a major player. If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate,” he said. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”

Now that the truth is out, will the US government take aggressive action to reduce the amount of methane emissions from fracking? Not by the hair on your chiny chin chin, grasshopper. The US government as presently constituted is a staunch ally of the fossil fuel companies, even if that means shirking its Constitutional duty to protect its citizens from harm. It is basically a criminal conspiracy, just as George Carlin told us it was years ago.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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