Why Fracking is Worse than Coal

Methane extraction infrastructure sprawls across rural communities of Midland, Texas (EcoFlight)

The US coal industry is dying. The technologies of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have flooded energy markets with cheap methane fuel. Methane is a hydrocarbon with 72 times the atmospheric heat-trapping potential as the carbon dioxide molecule in a 20-year time frame.

That’s why they renamed it natural gas.

Oil, coal, solar, wind, and even nuclear fission occur in nature. Methane is the only energy source we are conditioned to call natural. Fossil fuel corporations market “natural gas” the way fast food corporations market “natural beef”. It’s simply branding terminology developed as part of a multi-billion-dollar public relations campaign.

There is no plan to utilize methane as a bridge toward renewable energy. All projections indicate that those who profit from its extraction intend to increase production indefinitely and at any cost. They spend hundreds of millions to inhibit renewable energy legislation and infrastructure, often employing shady tactics and deliberately misleading information. It does not bring our nations wealth. It is a boom-and-bust industry that creates inherently temporary jobs and, despite trillions in subsidies and speculative stock investments, perpetually operates cash-flow negative, at an average rate of 9 billion USD per economic quarter since 2012. It does not promote energy independence. Over 60% is sold to foreign markets. Although an increasingly scarce and fundamentally unsustainable resource, Americans are allowing extraction corporations to expand infrastructure into their own neighborhoods because they have been told that methane is safer and cleaner than oil or coal. Mounting data have long been refuting this narrative. Media ignore their implications.

No transition in sight: US EIA projections openly defy IPCC guidelines and international climate accords

Carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of methane are around half per unit energy of those emitted from burning coal; this has been widely used to tout its green reputation. However, CH4 (methane) is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 and some of it always leaks into the atmosphere before being burned. With a very low leakage rate, conventional methods of methane extraction are likely able to emit less greenhouse gases than coal mining. However, using hydraulic fracturing to tap previously inaccessible reserves involves far more methane leakage, or fugitive emissions. As this technology industrialized, many wondered if these elevated emissions from the gas extraction industry may actually trap more radiation than emissions from coal.

In 2011, researchers at Cornell conservatively estimated fugitive emissions from drillpad to powerplant based on industry-reported EPA data and determined a range of 3.6% to 7.9% leakage. Using these estimates, they calculated emissions projections comparing equal energy production from coal and shale gas and found that “Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon”. Just months afterward, a team from the National Center for Atmospheric Research corroborated these results. The next year, field measurements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration implied that these projections may be low, finding that fugitive methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing in the Denver-Julesburg Basin were over twice as high as the industry had reported. Subsequent research has consistently bolstered this pattern, including a 2016 study on 5 Pennsylvania frack fields that measured total fugitive methane at 10–37 times higher than industry reports. When considering aggregate greenhouse gas emissions between the processes of drilling, fracturing, piping, refining, transporting, and burning; few climatologists will make the case that methane has any substantial climate benefit over coal. Indeed, many say it is worse.

Emission projections per megajoule generated comparing fossil fuel sources by Howarth et al. 2011

Then there are the public health consequences. While the repercussions of coal mining are comparably devastating, those of methane extraction objectively cover more area and claim more lives. First of all, the work is inherently dangerous. US oil and gas workers die at 7.6 times the average national rate. In addition, more than half of US homes rely on methane piping as their primary heating source. With vast quantities of flammable gas flowing through decrepit networks of corrosive pipes, lethal residential explosions have become increasingly common in the states. On top of that, as remote extraction sites became scarce, drilling and infrastructure encroach further into neighborhoods. While methane is biologically benign, a cocktail of other compounds backflow during the drilling and fracturing processes. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds such as propane, toluene, and ethyl-benzene adversely affect biological, ecological, and atmospheric chemistry. Communities proximal to oil and gas drilling operations correlate with significantly higher risks of asthma, cancer, and infant mortality. Underground, these same compounds leech through fractures in shale deposits and cracks in well cases, poisoning groundwater. During hydraulic fracturing, 10% of well cases crack immediately and 30% crack within a 10-year time frame. Due to diminishing returns as easily-extracted shale gas deposits become scarce, new fracking projects use increasing amounts of fresh municipal water (anywhere from 1.5 million to 16 million gallons per well), which when combined with undisclosed “proprietary” chemicals becomes so toxic that it cannot be treated and is then removed from the hydrologic cycle. The process of disposing this wastewater by injecting it into deep geological strata pressurizes faults and causes earthquakes. The oil and gas industry uses its endless subsidies and Wall Street investments to drown out these alarming findings with biased and often fraudulent research of its own. This private funding has effectively captured geology departments in various and often public universities, who operate industry recruiting programs and have been exposed in some schools to be coercing scientists to fraudulently alter data, as in the whistle-blower case of Professor Austin Holland.

Seismic activity in Oklahoma, recorded by Dr. Holland and the USGS, visualized by Dan Nguyen

If the influence of the oil and gas industry in academia weren’t concerning enough, it does not even begin to approach the influence it has bought in politics. Across the US; cities, counties, and municipalities have democratically elected to regulate or ban methane extraction only to be disenfranchised and have drilling forced upon them by state officials with oil and gas ties. At a time of global climate crisis, the US State Department champions methane as a green fuel at energy policy summits and promotes projects to build immense international pipeline networks through the pristine rainforests and coral reefs of Southeast Asia. Archaic and obsolete, the coal industry simply cannot afford the lobbying power that oil and gas commands and has in many ways become a straw man for industry-funded politicians and nonprofits to knock down in order to posture as environmentalists. In spite of their efforts, public awareness is rising. In the face of corruption, Americans in many states have turned to the petition process in attempts to place democratic controls on the industry. Hundreds of local governments, three US states, and eight countries have already banned hydraulic fracturing. The tide seems to be slowly turning. But as the industry prepares to multiply production, the speculation market bubbles, and climate crisis looms ever nearer, will it turn in time?