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  • Christopher Alexander

What Fracking Can Tell Us About Beating Climate Change

Hurricane Harvey put Houston underwater. Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean, and flooded much of Florida’s coastal cities. While these storms were not a direct effect of climate change, they should serve as an obvious reminder, a sounding alarm, of what is at risk. The fact is that the effects of climate change will inevitably turn what are already devastating storms into catastrophic ones.

With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves how to move forward. The fight against climate change, can, and should, be fought without the support of the Trump administration. Concerns about climate change have fallen upon the deaf ears of this administration time and time again.

But even if someone else sat in the oval office, would government be capable of spearheading this necessary campaign? An analysis of the government’s handling of the issue of fracking would suggest no.

Last February, a group of Harvard scientists released a report concerning U.S. methane emissions. For years, the Environmental Protection Agency assured the public that methane emissions were following the same declining trends as those of CO2. The Harvard report directly contradicts those claims, and instead finds that U.S. methane emissions have increased 30 percent between 2002-2014. Those emissions could account for anywhere between 30 to 60 percent of the growth in global atmospheric methane, meaning that the U.S climate footprint grew considerably over this period and throughout the Obama administration.

The study, which focused on satellite imagery and surface observations, does not point explicitly to a source for this increase in emissions. Cattle and livestock, natural oil, and a number of natural factors are reportedly possible contributors. The time period studied does coincide with sizeable developments in the natural oil industry, though. This, in conjunction with studies concerning leakage rates, makes it reasonable to assume that natural oil, and specifically hydraulic fracturing, has played a role in the emissions increase.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of fracturing rock in order to reach natural oil deposits beneath the surface, and has been used for quite some time. In 2002, a merger between Mitchell and Devon Energy expanded the industry to new heights. Fracking quickly spread across Texas, Philadelphia, Louisiana, and West Virginia. But even then, fracking was still a relatively small game. This began to change in 2005. Following relentless lobbying efforts from then Vice President Dick Cheney, the Environmental Policy Act of 2005 was signed into law. This legislation allowed for natural gas companies to be excluded from protections found in Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Community Right to Know Act, among others. With the red tape cut, fracking finally had the ability to expand.

Then the housing market crashed, sending Wall Street and the entire U.S. economy into an almost free fall. President Obama was handed over an economy losing well over 300 thousand jobs a month. Fracking gave hope in an otherwise hopeless time. So the Obama administration, consistent with his affirmative vote for the Environmental Policy Act, turned to natural oil as a medium by which to create jobs and advance environmental goals. The thinking at the time held that natural oil was the clean energy of the future. Natural oil emits half as much CO2 as coal does when burned. In theory, natural oil would only be half as bad for the environment as coal, giving us the ability to cut our carbon footprint.

By 2010, fracking had increased 45 percent domestically. That year, the public also got their first look at an issue arising and leaking into our atmosphere: methane. The documentary Gasland highlighted the threats to drinking water that fracking posed, highlighted famously by video of tap water being lit on fire. This finding contradicted EPA findings from 2004, which claimed that the process of fracking posed no significant threat to drinking water supplies and that no further research into the topic was necessary. In 2010 and 2011 legislative efforts were made to protect drinking water supplies. The bigger picture issue, however, evaded the public’s eye. Even today, a large part of anti-fracking fervor surrounds drinking water supplies. The same methane that makes tap water flammable, can leak into our atmosphere. If it does, methane is far more efficient at trapping heat than CO2. The EPA places the heating value of methane at about 30 times that of CO2, but some scientists place that number at anywhere between 80 to 105. Where a CO2 molecule takes 100 years to breakdown, a methane molecule will do so in 20 years.

For methane to be of concern, of course, it would actually have to leak before being transported. For years, during the Obama administration, the EPA trends suggested that this wasn’t to be an issue. Methane was not leaking at high rates, and methane emissions overall were declining. CO2 emissions were declining. A win on all sides right?

A study released in 2011 suggested that anywhere between 3.6 to 7.9 percent of the methane produced during shale gas production was indeed leaking into the atmosphere. Studies in the years following continuously corroborated high leakage rates. A NOAA study in 2013 found leakage rates up to 9 percent.

The Harvard study rightly confirms the idea that methane emissions are on the rise. When taken into conjunction with study after study suggesting higher leakage rates than the EPA estimated, it can be concluded that indeed fracking has played a large role in this methane increase.

The part of the climate puzzle which seems to be constantly ignored, however, is the solution. The unhappy fact is, that even if we were to halt all emissions tomorrow, there is still more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any time in history. That isn’t going to go away. Which is to say, the effects of the gases already in our atmosphere are going to be felt regardless of what happens tomorrow.

It is nonetheless important to move forward with goals for removing our dependence on greenhouse gas emitting sources. But that simply is not enough.

We need innovative thinking to craft solutions to our very serious climate issue. It is incumbent on us, today’s college students but tomorrow’s leaders, to come up with those solutions. More importantly, this responsibility and the solutions which are to be created, have to be separate from government.

Companies around the world have taken to creating machines that remove and absorb atmospheric CO2. Climeworks AG, a company based out of Switzerland, has developed technology aimed at, what they refer to as, negative emissions. Their Direct Air Capture power plant captures atmospheric CO2, and recycles it to be used in products like beverages and fertilizers. “The private sector understands that climate change translates to financial risk. At the same time recent decisions of political leaders have made it clear that we can’t trust regulation to enforce the necessary business decisions. Private sector innovation has therefore become more important than ever before,” Climeworks explained in a statement to the BPR.

We need to empower businesses to pick up the slack. If we wait for a Congress or a President to come up with the solution for us, it will either be wrong or it will come by the time the shores are already at our feet.

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