Wiederhold: Oil, coal or gas—It’s still not clean

One of the few arguments that can be made in favor of hydraulic fracturing is the fact that natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels. Because of this, natural gas is being promoted as a “bridge fuel,” a source of energy to be used instead of coal until carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar power are capable of being more widely used. Although natural gas is itself a fossil fuel and does in fact have a carbon footprint, it only emits half of the amount of carbon pollution that coal does when it’s burned. So, as the argument goes, developing our natural gas resources is a step in the right direction toward curbing global warming.

But before you start thinking that drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale is better for the environment than coal and that it’s going to help ameliorate our climate woes, there’s another gas besides carbon dioxide that needs to be taken into consideration: methane.

Methane is also a greenhouse gas and is 25 times more powerful at trapping atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide. Methane gets intentionally vented during well, pipeline and tank maintenance as well as unintentionally released from cracks in seals and pipelines. More methane gets emitted from the process of extracting natural gas reserves from shale than from extracting conventional natural gas, oil or coal. When you add these methane emissions into the equation, natural gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing actually has a higher greenhouse gas footprint than any other fossil fuel – including coal.

The argument that using natural gas to help reduce global warming might seem logical if you’re only looking at how much carbon dioxide it will put into the atmosphere upon combustion. There’s more to the story than that, however. To ignore the contribution that methane emissions make to the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas would be irresponsible. Hydraulic fracturing would actually worsen climate change rather than reduce it – so there’s no sense in promoting shale gas as a bridge fuel unless some strict regulations on methane emissions are put in place.

So there goes the advantage that natural gas has over coal. Why should we risk contaminating our water and air with cancer-causing chemicals for an energy source that could exacerbate global warming? The only remaining argument I see in favor of hydraulic fracturing is the money to be made. The way I see it, what it ultimately comes down to is that we have to ask ourselves what do we value more – our health or our wallets?