Fracking is a bridge to nowhere

First published in the Chronicle Journal Jan 11, 2016

For Canada and other parties to the recent Paris climate change agreement to meet their commitment to keep warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, “‘plan A’ must be to immediately and aggressively reduce GHG emissions.”
Why? Because there’s no plan B.
That’s not the cry of crazy environmentalists. That’s the cool-headed conclusion of a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change entitled “Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions” assessing the potential of what are called NETs (negative emissions technologies), which are designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

If NETs were viable, we could ease into the inevitable transition to renewable energy.
Problem is, they don’t work. As the Nature Climate Change authors conclude, “there is no NET (or combination of NETs) currently available that could be implemented to meet the (below) 2 degrees Celsius target without significant impact on either land, energy, water, nutrient, albedo or cost.” Check out their conclusions for yourself (

Which brings us to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas, which burns cleaner than crude oil and coal. Many, President Obama included, see fracking as a bridge to a clean energy future.
But as bridges go, fracking is a bit shaky.
Consider the earthquakes. The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission reports that fracking conducted by a company called Process Energy (which is owned by Malaysia’s Petronas) triggered a 4.4-magnitude earthquake that was felt in Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, B.C. in August 2014. In August 2015 the company suspended fracking operations after a 4.6 magnitude quake in northeastern B.C.
Which is bad. But not Oklahoma bad.
Oklahoma rang in the New Year with 70 quakes in the first week of 2016. The largest measured a magnitude of 4.8.
A state report prepared last year by the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) noted a connection between hydraulic fracturing and some earthquake “swarms,” and state officials say there’s a potential risk to the public due to the increase in quakes. Experts say the quakes are likely being caused by injection wells, which are particularly deep wells into which drilling byproducts and wastewater are injected.
“The OGS considers it very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those in central and north-central Oklahoma, are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells,” the agency said.
Which is bad. But not California bad.
California Governor Jerry Brown recently declared a state of emergency in response to a leak of a natural gas storage well in Los Angeles equivalent in scale to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, except that it’s on land in a densely populated community. Local residents are sick, and thousands have been evacuated from their homes.
The leak, buried deep in the ground at a giant gas field that stores energy for distribution around Southern California, now accounts for about 25 per cent of the methane emitted in California each day. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. How potent? Methane is 80-times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.
In a precautionary move, the Federal Aviation Administration has declared the air space over the neighbourhood a “no fly zone.”
The well has been leaking since Oct. 23, 2015, making it the single largest contribution to climate change in the state.
The company responsible for the spill, the Southern California Gas Company, is constructing a relief well to fix the problem. The new well will have to reach more than 8,000 feet underground so engineers can inject additional liquids and then permanently cap the leaking well with cement.
What could go wrong?
Well, according to a study published last summer in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, natural gas gathering facilities, which collect gas from multiple wells, lose approximately 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas every year. Which is about eight times more than the estimates relied on by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Which is bad. But not Congress bad.
On Dec. 18, the U.S. Congress voted to lift the 40-year-old ban on oil exports as part of an omnibus budget bill. According to the Economist magazine’s analysis, this move will likely give the fracking industry a fillip, increasing the market for the light, sweet crude pumped out of America’s shale deposits.
If oil prices recover from their prolonged slump, the lifting of the ban on oil exports lobbied for by the oil and gas industry is likely to encourage shale-oil producers to pump even more oil, continuing America’s natural gas revolution.
Which isn’t exactly in line with plan A.
Which is a problem, given that there’s no plan B.
Jason MacLean teaches environmental law at Lakehead University and writes here biweekly.