The United States lowered its carbon emissions by 450 million in the five years preceding 2012, The Economist claims. This article and others like it (see here and here for more examples) all praise natural gas, produced through hydraulic fracturing, as the cause of said decline. They justify this assertion by contrasting the United States with the European Union (EU), which has not seen quite as dramatic of a decline.
However, what goes unmentioned in these articles is the massive volume of carbon emitted by the United States. According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), the United States sent more than 19 tons of carbon per capita into the atmosphere in 2007. Comparatively, the EU emitted only about eight tons per person. By 2010, the last year of CDIAC’s data, the United States had decreased emissions by 6.8 percent, while the EU had reduced by 7.5 percent.
What is most remarkable, considering The Economist’s claims, is that Europe realizes these greater relative gains, despite its hesitation to allow fracking. What can we learn from the European model? First, we must ask why fracking is not promoted there. Many studies have shown that fracking causes several environmental problems. Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke University, made this argument in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this summer. His study found methane in 82 percent of drinking water samples taken around the Marcellus Shale in the American Northeast. What’s more shocking is that the concentration of methane was six times higher in samples taken within one kilometer of fracking sites. That statistic is even more striking for ethane, which was 23 times higher. David Holzman’s article in Environmental Health Perspectives echoes Dr. Jackson’s findings, not to mention Josh Fox’s award-winning documentary “Gasland.”
However, for each study that backs up these results, proponents of fracking point to another that contradicts it. A new study from the University of Texas finds that fracking causes smaller methane leaks than was previously estimated. However, as The New York Times highlights, it was sponsored by nine petroleum companies. Beyond these obvious biases, it seems to sweep under the rug some of the more consequential environmental issues. Take, for example, methane venting– a process used to clean and maintain wells– which is ignored by the Texas study. Studies that do examine it find that venting methane directly into the atmosphere is drastically more dangerous than burning carbon dioxide, negating the supposed benefits of natural gas over coal. Looking at all direct releases of methane during production and use, Cornell Professor Robert Howarth found that the shale greenhouse gas footprint is at least 50 percent greater than oil and 20 percent greater than coal over 20 years.
All this being said, perhaps the most problematic part of fracking is the process itself; hydraulic fracturing uses pressurized water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals to bust open shale rock and allow the gas to escape. But the chemicals that are used– like acids, detergents and poisons– are often not even known, as they are not regulated by federal law. The same Texas study that argued that methane leakage is lower than previously thought also noted that the volume of fracking fluid spilled is twice past projections and estimated that 639,000 tons of other mechanical fluids are leaked yearly. Proponents of fracking boast that 99.51 percent of the injection fluids consist of sand and water. Yet, each of our 20,000 wells will use as much as five million gallons of water in its lifetime. That means 490 million gallons of fracking fluid will be pumped into our soil to maintain the wells we have now. Beyond the fluids, the pressure with which these fluids are injected was demonstrated to cause over 100 earthquakes in the Youngstown, Ohio, area.
Given the overwhelming evidence that fracking is bad for the environment, despite its seemingly low carbon footprint, do we then resort back to coal? The answer must be no. Europe consistently reduces its emissions, relatively more than the United States, and it is through support for green technologies and a carbon trading scheme that they do so. Executing those ideals is not easy, but if Europe serves as a model, then they may offer better promise than fracking.