Natural gas from shale contributes to global warming

April 12, 2011

Natural gas extracted from shale formations has a greater greenhouse gas footprint - in the form of methane emissions - than conventional gas, oil and coal over a 20 year period. This calls into question the logic of its use as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, according to Robert Howarth and colleagues, from Cornell University in New York. Their work (1) is published online in Springer's journal, Climatic Change Letters (2).

Shale gas* has become an increasingly important source of natural gas in the United States over the past decade. Howarth and team evaluated the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas, obtained by high-volume hydraulic fracturing of shale formations, focusing on methane emissions. They analyzed the most recently published data - in particular, the technical background document on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry (EPA 2010), as well as a report on natural gas losses on federal lands from the General Accountability Office (GAO 2010).

They calculated that, overall, during the life cycle of an average shale-gas well, between four to eight percent of the total production of the well is emitted to the atmosphere as methane, via routine venting and equipment leaks, as well as with flow-back return fluids during drill out following the fracturing of the shale formations. Routine production and downstream methane emissions are also large, but comparable to those of conventional gas.

Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but methane also has a 10-fold shorter residence time in the atmosphere. As a result, its effect on global warming falls more rapidly. Methane dominates the greenhouse gas footprint for shale gas on a 20 year horizon, contributing up to three times more than does direct carbon dioxide emission. At this time scale, the footprint for shale gas is at least 20 percent greater than that for coal, and perhaps twice as great.

Robert Howarth concludes: "The large greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming. The full footprint should be used in planning for alternative energy futures that adequately consider global climate change."

*Shale gas is extracted by a high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process. Large volumes of water are forced under pressure into the shale to fracture and re-fracture the rock to boost gas flow. A significant amount of water returns to the surface as flow-back within the first few days to weeks after injection and is accompanied by large quantities of methane.

(1) Howarth RW et al (2011). Methane and greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Climatic Change Letters. DOI 10.1007/s10584-011-0061-5

(2) Climatic Change Letters is an additional section of the journal Climatic Change.

The full-text article is available to journalists on request.


Related Methane Articles from Brightsurf:

When methane-eating microbes eat ammonia instead
As a side effect of their metabolism, microorganisms living on methane can also convert ammonia.

Making more of methane
Looking closely at the chemical process that transforms methane into useful products could help unveil more efficient ways to use natural gas.

Methane: emissions increase and it's not a good news
It is the second greenhouse gas with even a global warming potential larger than CO2.

Measuring methane from space
A group of researchers from Alaska and Germany is reporting for the first time on remote sensing methods that can observe thousands of lakes and thus allow more precise estimates of methane emissions.

New 3D view of methane tracks sources
NASA's new 3-dimensional portrait of methane concentrations shows the world's second largest contributor to greenhouse warming.

Show me the methane
Though not as prevalent in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas.

Containing methane and its contribution to global warming
Methane is a gas that deserves more attention in the climate debate as it contributes to almost half of human-made global warming in the short-term.

Microorganisms reduce methane release from the ocean
Bacteria in the Pacific Ocean remove large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane.

Origin of massive methane reservoir identified
New research provides evidence of the formation and abundance of abiotic methane -- methane formed by chemical reactions that don't involve organic matter -- on Earth and shows how the gases could have a similar origin on other planets and moons, even those no longer home to liquid water.

Unexpected culprit -- wetlands as source of methane
Knowing how emissions are created can help reduce them.

Read More: Methane News and Methane Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to