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Cornell Study: Hydraulic Fracturing Creates More Greenhouse Gasses

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The process of hydraulic fracturing, which forces water, sand and chemicals into the ground to help release natural gas from shale, may also be pumping something else into the atmosphere.

KUNC’s Brian Larson spoke to Northern Colorado Business Report publisher Jeff Nuttall for more.

Larson: A lot of the “fracking” debate focuses on what may or may not be happening to ground water supplies. But Jeff a team of researchers at Cornell University now says the process also produces about 40 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional natural gas development.

Nuttall: The report says emissions produced by the U.S. natural-gas industry will grow from 17 to 23 percent over the next 20 years as shale continues to replace conventional natural gas. They also believe that based on its large contribution of methane, shale gas development results in greater greenhouse gas emissions than oil or coal. The researchers also say that shale gas is not suitable as a “bridge fuel” from fossil fuels to renewable energy, an assertion held by many people both inside and outside the industry.

Larson: I’m aware of another pollution study done by the University of Colorado that says air quality in the town of Erie contains higher levels of methane, propane and butane, than Houston, Texas and Pasadena, California. Something that they say is linked to oil and gas production. Does this back up the Cornell study?

Nuttall: Cornell researchers estimate that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well. That’s double the amount that escapes from conventional gas production. One researcher said hydraulic fracturing is more prone to leakage because it takes more time to drill the well, requires more venting and produces more flowback waste. And, according to the study, the natural-gas industry already leads in methane pollution -- contributing 39 percent of the total amount of emissions.

Larson: I think I already know the answer to this – but how is the oil and gas industry responding to the study?

Nuttall: Groups like the Colorado Oil and Gas Association have criticized their conclusions. Researchers with the Independent Petroleum Association of America have written several blog posts condemning the study. Meanwhile, another set of researchers from Cornell University also have questioned the study. They called it “seriously flawed.”

Larson: Interesting that there are two separate groups from the same university at odds over the same issue. What exactly are the serious flaws that this second group refers to?

Nuttall: Well, primarily they said the first team overestimated leakage and venting rates, wrongly assuming that all of the methane from a fractured well would escape. Critics of the first study say it would have been more realistic for those researchers to use a widely accepted “venting” figure in the industry — 85 percent, rather than 100 percent. The critics also said the researchers relied on an overly aggressive time frame in suggesting a climatic tipping point may be reached sometime over the next 20 years or so.

Larson: Jeff Nuttall is the publisher of the Northern Colorado Business Report.

 

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