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Fracking the key environmental/energy question of 2012?

January 9, 2012

While I was on my holiday hiatus, I came across this important piece from John Daly at Oilprice.com.  Daly breaks down the state of play in the battle over natgas fracking (natural gas derived from hydraulic fracturing).  Daly believes that this could be the key environmental battle of 2012 (I think it will remain the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline).  In particular, Daly highlights a pair of dueling scientific papers out of Cornell University.  On the one hand, a team of researchers led by Robert Howarth identify methane leakage from natgas fracking as a more potent global warming danger than even mining and burning coal; on the other hand, a separate set of Cornell researchers led by Lawrence Cathles attack Howarth’s methodology and claim that his numbers vastly overstate the problems.  The numbers aren’t even close – Howarth, et al, claim that over a 20 year period, the total life cycle greenhous gas emissions from fracking would be at least 20% and perhaps 50% greater than coal; the other team argues that the real lifetime emissions of fracked natgas is at least half and perhaps as little as a third that of coal.

There is probably not enough data to come to a sure and certain conclusion; however, I tend to lean toward the side of Cathles, et al, not because I am in general a supporter of natural gas but because I am a technological positivist.  The Cathles, et al, study points out that Howarth, et al, do not adequately account for the use of “green technologies” in reducing methane leakage.  Further, the future capabilities of such “green technologies” should continuously improve.

In any case, I think the important lesson for the natural gas industry is to keep developing these green technologies, to keep employing them, and to bring their use to the forefront of the discussion.  When most people think “Green Energy,” they think only of solar panels and wind mills.  The energy industry as a whole needs to do a better job of informing the public of the tremendous advances that have been made and that continue to be made in developing these other green energy technologies.

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