Researchers Clash Over Fracking 'Footprint'
January 21, 2012

Researchers Clash Over Fracking ‘Footprint’

Two groups of prominent researchers at Cornell University have made conflicting findings regarding the environmental effects of the natural gas extraction technique known as fracking, and they´re duking it out on the pages of the scientific journal Climatic Change, according to a recent Associated Press report.

The debate revolves around a study published last April that attempted to estimate the amount of greenhouse compounds released into the atmosphere when fracking for natural gas in shale.

According to the Cornell geologist Lawrence Cathles, that study–which was conducted by his university colleagues, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Robert Howarth and professor of civil and environmental engineering Anthony Ingraffea (both at Cornell)–overestimated the values of fracking leaks by as much as tenfold.

According to the 2011 study by Howarth and Ingraffea, as much as 1.9 percent of the gas in a fracking well leaks into the atmosphere during extraction. While 1.9 percent may not sound like much, conventional gas wells only leak about 0.01 by comparison, a fact which the two authors have used to call into question the notion that gas can be used as a so-called ℠bridge fuel´ until renewable technologies catch up with energy demand.

Cathles, however, maintains that gas loss during fracking is dramatically lower than their study claims; somewhere on the order of 0.2 percent instead of almost 2 percent.

The implication, according to Cathles, is that natural gas should in fact be considered as a reliable, safe and relatively inexpensive bridge fuel.

“In the short term, our energy needs should be satisfied mainly by those fuels having the fewest inherent environmental disadvantages [“¦] Those preferred fuels include natural gas.”

Howarth and Ingraffea´s study has also drawn criticism from private researchers. In an e-mail written to journalists last April, the CEO of Houston Advanced Research Center Robert Hariss insisted that Howarth´s data simply didn´t support his claim that the environmental ℠footprint´ of shale gas is 20 percent higher than that of coal.

And Hariss himself is no dunce when it comes to the science behind energy extraction. In the 1980s and 90s, he spent some four years studying the emissions of oil and gas wells.

While the research center is a nonprofit organization, it has received funding from the oil and gas industry to sponsor studies of environmentally-friendly drilling techniques.

In a conference call on Friday, Howarth defended him and his colleague´s 2011 research results noting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme have also conducted studies that corroborate their research.

Howarth says that he would like to see government laws introduced that force fracking companies to capture the leaking gas. At current energy prices, drillers would lose money in the expensive process required to catch escaping gas.


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