Exploring Human Potential

Methane, Fracking and Iran – Mitigating Risk.

Posted on | November 26, 2013 | Comments Off on Methane, Fracking and Iran – Mitigating Risk.

Mike Magee

Things are shifting in the Middle East. That’s undeniable. And if want to know why, follow the money – or more accurately, the energy. In front of our noses, there’s a wholesale shift going on, away from oil and toward natural gas delivered through technology driven fracking and horizontal drilling.

The geopolitical fallout has been swift and is ongoing – including this week’s announcements of an interim agreement with Iran to push the pause on it’s uranium refinement.

The ground is shifting rapidly for the energy sector. The health and security stakes involved, including issues of air quality, global warming, income disparity, and the personal economies of countries and their populations couldn’t be higher.

Ground zero in the U.S. is energy independence, and the appropriate regulation to assure that new technologies are both safe and effective. For fracking that means water safety, appropriate disposal of chemicals, geologic stability post-fracking, and methane release into the atmosphere.

On this last issue – methane release – an alert was released this week in a study released by the National Academy of Sciences.(1) More on that in a moment.

First a few facts. The main concern with methane is its impact on greenhouse gas induced atmospheric changes and global warming. While it represents only 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions, it is 21 times as destructive to our ozone levels compared to the much more prevalent carbon dioxide.(1,2)

As for CO2, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center maintains EDGAR – the Emission Database For Global Atmospheric Research. In October, 2013, it reported, “ Actual global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 34.5 billion ton in 2012, which means a relative increase in 2012 compared to 2011 of only 1.1% – less than half of the average annual increase of 2.9% over the last decade.” It went on to say that, “This might indicate that a further slowdown in the increase in global CO2 emissions, is achievable if (a) China achieves its own target of a maximum level of energy consumption by 2015 and its shift to gas with a natural gas share of 10% by 2020; (b) the United States continues a shift its energy mix towards more gas and renewable energy; and (c) in the European Union, Member States agree on restoring the effectiveness of the EU Emissions Trading System to further reduce actual emissions.”(3)

That’s the good news. But this week, the National Academy of Sciences supported study said that EDGAR and the EPA’s measurements on methane levels were seriously understated, and they pointed a finger at the South Central United States.(1)

Their words: “…regional methane emissions due to fossil fuel extraction and processing could be 4.9 ± 2.6 times larger than in EDGAR, the most comprehensive global methane inventory.” This contradicted the EPA’s statements this past April that said methane emissions from 1990 to 2010 were down 8 to 12%.(2)

The study’s conclusions are drawn from 12,700 discreet measurements taken from 2007 and 2008. The measures were then correlated with geography and agricultural and energy sector activity on the ground.

And the conclusion:

1. In specific areas in the U.S., methane gas release was twice as great as EDGAR studies claimed.

2. Oil and gas operations in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were a leading driver with these states contributing more than 25% of all the methane emissions in the U.S.

3. Livestock production of methane gas appears to be twice the level published by EDGAR.

While states like New York continue to debate whether or not to allow fracking, most states, and the federal government, appear to be cautiously giving the new technologies the green light.

In light of the alternatives, and the economic and global political benefits of energy independence – especially with our recent history of involvement in the Middle East – it’s easy to understand why we are willing to assume the risk.

But is we are to proceed, we need to have a vibrant regulatory and scientific apparatus that monitors in real time and mitigates risk – to water, to soil, to air – and to us.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


1. Miller S. Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

2. Wines M. Emissions of Methane in U.S. Exceed Estimates, Study Finds. NYT. November 26, 2013.

3. EDGAR Report:Slowdown in the increase in global CO2 emissions in 2012.
PBL / JRC report 83593; EUR 26098 EN; ISBN 978-94-91506-51-2


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