Cross-posted from EcoWatch
In a very real sense it's not entirely the president's fault. When Obama took office in 2008 he decided to deal with health care before climate change, in essence tackling the biggest remaining problem of the 20th century before teeing up the biggest challenge of the 21st. His team told environmentalists that they wouldn't be talking about global warming, focusing instead on "green jobs." Obama did seize the opportunity offered by the auto industry bailout to demand higher mileage standards -- a useful move, but one that will pay off slowly over the decades. Other than that, faced with a hostile Congress, he spent no political capital on climate.
But he was able nonetheless to claim a victory of sorts. His accession to office coincided (coincidentally) with the widespread adoption of hydraulic fracking to drill for natural gas, resulting in a sudden boom in supplies and a rapid drop in price, to the point where gas began to supplant coal as the fuel of choice for American power plants. As a result (and as a result of the recession Obama also inherited), the nation's carbon dioxide emissions began to fall modestly.
For a political leader, it was the very definition of a lucky break: Without having to do much heavy lifting against the power of the fossil fuel industry, the administration was able to produce results. In fact, it gave Obama cover from the right, as he in essence turned the GOP chant of "Drill Baby Drill" into "Frack Baby Frack." Not only that, the cheap gas was a boost to sputtering American manufacturing, making it profitable once again to make chemicals and other goods close to home. As Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address, as his re-election campaign geared up, "We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly a hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy."
In his second term, Obama has become more vocal about climate change -- and even more explicit in his reliance on natural gas to make the numbers work. Here's the State of the Union 2014: "if extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."
Shortly after that speech, the president announced his most ambitious climate plans yet, instructing the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, with the goal of cutting 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. This attack on coal was welcome news for those of us concerned with climate change, because it marked the first time (and given his approaching lame-duck status, probably the last) the president had really taken on the issue with actual laws. It was, among other things, an (apparently successful) effort to get countries like China making commitments of their own, and to restart the international negotiations that failed at Copenhagen in 2009.
Whether that strategy pays off or not, one key result is not in doubt: As Forbes magazine pointed out that day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations will lead to "the dramatic expansion of natural gas as a fuel for power generation." Some sun, some wind, but an awful lot of gas. In fact, the administration is so bullish on fracked gas that it is both moving to export more of our supply to other nations (it's even been suggested as a way to stand up to Vladimir Putin) and offering many countries technical assistance in learning how to frack on their own. A long list, including India, China, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico have taken up the State Department on the offer.
Much of the new gas that fracking made profitable was found beneath the Marcellus Shale, a huge formation that runs beneath the Appalachians as far north as upstate New York. Fracking and drilling for gas in this densely populated region was different than doing it in Texas or the Dakotas -- people quickly began to notice, and complain. Grassroots opposition to fracking mushroomed, finding its voice in director Josh Fox's provocative documentary Gasland, and its iconic image of a faucet shooting flame.
But because the gas industry had a head start on its critics, and was willing to spend huge sums to influence local and state politicians, fracking was soon firmly ensconced in places like Pennsylvania, which was even leasing state forest land for drilling. The opposition barely managed to draw a line at the New York border, convincing Gov. Andrew Cuomo that it would be politically unwise to lift a moratorium on the practice.
Given the geology -- and the intellectual geography -- of upstate New York, it was no surprise that Ithaca became a center of the debate -- and that the swirling debate began to interest faculty at some of the local institutions: Ithaca College's Sandra Steingraber, for instance, and some of Cornell's best scientists. Among them was Bob Howarth, a biogeochemist who began to wonder about the larger implications of the fracking boom.
And here's where we need to talk chemistry for a minute. Carbon dioxide -- co2, the molecule produced when we burn fossil fuels -- traps heat in the atmosphere, causing much of the climate change we see around us. The reason President Obama likes gas more than coal is because it produces half as much carbon dioxide when you burn it.
But co2 is not the only molecule that plays this trick. Methane -- ch4 -- is a rarer gas, but it's even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: when you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it's no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America's substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.
Howarth's question, then, was: how much methane does escape? "It's a hard physical task to keep it from leaking -- that was my starting point," he says. "Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I've done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it's just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town's water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that's true of most towns. That's because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin."
Howarth and his colleague Anthony Ingraffea began to investigate. In a paper published in the journal Climate Change in May 2011, they concluded that somewhere between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent of the methane from fracking wells was escaping into the atmosphere as its made its way from underground to end user. Which is a lot. More than enough, as we shall see, to make fracking worse for climate change than the coal it was replacing.
The attacks began immediately, in the time-honored tradition dating back at least to the time of Rachel Carson. Industry newspapers proclaimed that the Cornell researchers were "junk scientists" and "activists." As the editor of the trade paper Marcellus Drilling News put it, "the only fugitive methane of any significance is the stuff emanating from these two."