Natural gas extraction may harm the environment more than mining coal does, a recent Cornell study published in the May 2011 issue of Climate Change Letters argued.
Led by Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology, along with Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, civil and environmental engineering, and Renee Santoro, a research technician in ecology and evolutionary biology, the study contends that hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking,” will exacerbate the effects of global warming, Howarth said.
Over the past 15 years, oil and natural gas industries have used fracking to obtain large quantities of natural gas from shale, a form of mineral rock, Ingraffea said.
The study is the first comprehensive peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from shale gas, according to Howarth.
“We looked at the greenhouse gas in comparison to conventional natural gas,” Howarth said. “Our research showed that carbon dioxide is only part of the problem, and natural gas, which is mostly methane, is far more potent. Even small leakages have a large footprint, leading to our conclusion that natural gas actually has a bigger impact on global warming.”
Although the scientific community has widely accepted natural gas as the cleanest natural resource for years, Ingraffea said this study questions that assumption.
“The single most important element of the whole debate was the assertion that natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel,” Ingraffea said. “That became a curiosity to [Howarth, Santoro] and myself. We wanted to see through scientific research if that was true or not.”
Due to the potent nature of methane leakages, Howarth said the analysis he performed should have occurred before oil and natural gas industries began the process of fracking.
“I would think that this type of analysis should have been done before, but it wasn’t,” Howarth said. “It takes a lot of time to do this research and publish it in a journal. I do wish someone had done this earlier, but in the end, better late than never.”
Howarth said the study has received a large-scale response from fellow researchers as well as the press, adding that the research has been covered by hundreds of newspapers including media outlets such as NPR, BBC and FOX News.
Various aspects of the study have been criticized. “The data in Mr. Howarth’s study — even by his own admission — is woefully thin,” said one New York Times blogger.
Despite a positive response from professionals within the oil and natural gas industries, Howarth said the industries themselves are not pleased with his findings.
“People in the industry have been extremely helpful in getting a better understanding of what was going on in terms of fracking,” Howarth said. “What we’re seeing now is backlash from the public relations side of the industry.”
Ingraffea describes the reactions to the study as mixed, stating that while oil and natural gas industries have responded negatively to his research, an official response in the form of a publication has yet to be issued.
“One of the intentions of our paper was to stimulate reactions. We have received negative responses from the oil and gas industries, and tremendous criticism of us as scientists,” Ingraffea said. “There are many allegations about what we did and how we did it, many of which were made before the paper was actually reviewed.”
Howarth said that instead of attacking the scientific findings of the study, industries are coming after him personally.
“[The industries] are saying the science is riddled with errors, but they are not really specifying what these errors are,” Howarth said. “They are also saying that I am not qualified to do this work. I take it as a sign that they can’t really attack the science so therefore, they choose to attack me.”
Howarth said that despite his 35 years of experience in the field, criticism about his qualifications came nonetheless.
“They are pretty sloppy in their attacks,” Howarth said. “But attacking they are.”
Whether the University permits fuel companies to lease its 11,000 acres of natural gas-rich land has been the source of considerable debate over the last few years.