Study on emissions from fossil fuel sites questions policy case for fracking, say researchers

180118 KM Eddie Thornton 2

Third Energy’s Kirby Misperton fracking site on 18 January 2018. Photo: Eddie Thornton

Scientists have called for investigations into the levels of methane released from oil and gas sites after a study concluded that global levels of some hydrocarbons in the atmosphere had been underestimated.

The conclusion could challenge the climate change case made by supporters of UK fracking, who argue that methane in natural gas has a lower carbon footprint than coal.

The study, published yesterday in Nature Geoscience, found that emissions of ethane and propane released during fossil fuel extraction and distribution could be two-three times higher than previously thought.

The authors from York, Oslo and Colorado are now calling for further research into emissions of methane, one of the most damaging greenhouse gases, that could also be released from hydrocarbon sites.

One of the authors, Professor Lucy Carpenter, from York University, said:

“We know that a major source of ethane and propane in the atmosphere is from “fugitive” or unintentional escaping emissions during fossil fuel extraction and distribution.

“If ethane and propane are being released at greater rates than we thought, then we also need to carefully re-evaluate how much of the recent growth of methane in the atmosphere may also have come from oil and natural gas development.

“The current policy case for fracking, for example, is partly based on the belief that it is less polluting that coal.”

The researchers used data on ethane and propane levels from 20 observatories across the world and compared it with simulations using emission inventories.

They concluded that observations of ethane and propane could be reproduced in simulations only where fossil fuel emissions were assumed to be two to three times higher than the level in the inventories.

Another author, Professor Ally Lewis, said:

“Levels of ethane and propane declined in many places the 1980s and 1990s, but global growth in demand for natural gas means these trends may be reversing.”

Propane and ethane are the most abundant non-methane hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. They are particularly harmful in large cities where they react with car emissions to form ozone. This is a greenhouse gas and a component of smog.

Professor Lewis said:

“The effects of higher ozone would be felt in the rural environment where it damages crops and plants, and in cities on human health.

“Tropospheric ozone causes a variety of serious health complaints and along with particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide is one of the three major causes of pollution-related deaths.”

Industry response

The industry body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas, has challenged the findings. Its Chief Executive, Ken Cronin, said:

 “The research was unable to distinguish between the emissions associated with different fossil fuels, including coal.  To apportion such emissions solely to oil and gas, and specifically shale gas, would be a misrepresentation of the dataset. This contrasts with a lack of large ethane or propane plumes identified in the North Sea, a large oil and gas producing offshore field.

“This global analysis of ethane and propane emissions reveals that several countries, many of which the UK imports oil and gas from, have higher emissions than had been previously reported- exemplified by large ethane and propane emissions in Middle East, Russia and Africa.

“Relying on data collection from 2011 is outdated as far as shale gas is concerned. Research and Development improvements since then, such as the use of ‘green completions’ and leak detection and repair policies in the US have ensured reduced emissions from shale gas operations.

“This research is an example, once again, of how some datasets are not applicable and unappreciative of the UK regulatory framework for shale gas production. The UK is applying the best available techniques for emissions reduction of onshore shale gas operations from exploration to decommissioning, as well as emissions monitoring from before a well is drilled or hydraulically fractured.”

Campaign response

The Green Party MEP for south east England, Keith Taylor, said:

“The scientific evidence exposes, time and time again, the destructive ignorance of a Conservative government that continues to pump £6bn a year of support into a fossil fuel industry that has set Britain on a course to miss its legally-binding domestic carbon targets and international Paris agreement obligations.”

“Theresa May’s repeated and steadfast insistence on fast-tracking fracking, in particular, flies not only in the face of the evidence, highlighting the climate destruction it wreaks, but also the local democracies and communities over which the industry and Government is riding roughshod.”

“This new report is just the latest in a long line to expose the urgent need to ban fracking. It reinforces the NASA report, from just two months ago, that identified the fossil fuel industry, particularly fracking, as the single largest driver of rising in methane levels in our atmosphere. It’s worth noting that methane has more than 80 times the climate change impact of carbon dioxide emissions.”

“The findings put Theresa May’s support for fracking – which the Government wants to see fast-tracked across England – completely at odds with her green promises. Theresa May might claim the Tories are environmental world-leaders but, with Scotland’s fracking ban already in place, they’re not even leading in the UK.”

“The Government can no longer ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence nor its own polls. The British public is clear and consistent: they don’t want to be locked into climate destructive fossil fuels, they want a clean, renewable energy future. It’s finally time for the Tories to listen. Fracking has never been and never will be a bridge to a clean energy future that it is already in our power to build.”

27 replies »

  1. The issue is there are higher levels of ghg’s in the atmosphere than previously thought. This makes the argument against any new fossil fuel extraction even stronger. It would be interesting to hear what the scientists that produced this study made of the industry response but I suspect they would be able to drive a coach and horses through it. And I note they quote green completions as a mitigating factor, yet I understand the industry in the UK has stated they will flare and not use green completion techniques. So if that is the case that blows that argument out of the water.

  2. “The authors are now calling for further research”.

    I am calling for more tax payers money to fund my lifestyle as well. And the gravy train keeps on rolling.

    Not too many years ago I recall a Scientific Director of a company I worked for complaining he could not afford to pay the sort of money to employ Scientific Graduates because of the funding available to them, including remuneration, for climate change research compared to commercial research. Hmm. Seems very little changes over time.

  3. Interesting to see the denials kick in straight away. That’s the achilles heal of O&G, and particularly of the shale gas industry. They simply avoid these top down studies and deny any incriminating results from other ‘experts’. Their first defense is to always dismiss the credibility of sources that aren’t from their own industry or serving their own interests – it’s almost a pavlovian response – or (as Martin does) suggest they’re in it for some new gravy train of research funding. The tricks and smears are easy to identify. But the truth is catching up on them. About time too.

    Ethane is about the most sure tell-tale (byproduct) of deep extraction vis-a-vis shale gas. It does not arise from biogenic methane. More research is most definitely called for. Nail the blighters I say.

  4. 1) Assume that the authors are correct. This would imply that fracking’s contribution to global warming doubles from 0.2% (0.002) to 0.4% (0.004). This is obviously still a very small contribution as compared with the enormous benefits which have accrued to the world as a result of fracking. Note that this would not account for the decreases in mercury, particulate matter, sox and nox which fracking has engendered by replacing coal usage. The authors of the aforementioned study actually cite these pollutants (pm, sox, nox) as some of the most harmful in the world.
    See here:

    2) The methodologies used by this group are suspect and have been questioned repeatedly by the scientific community. The bottom line is that they are very long on assumptions and very short on actual measurement. They assume, for instance, that there is a direct correlation between atmospheric ethane and methane. They also have admitted in the past that their models make little or no allowances for natural occurrences of methane, and that there are vast areas of the world which are poorly monitored such as small continents like Africa and Asia. They have also admitted that they assume a constant relationship between ethane and methane to make their conclusions and that has not been supported by actual data. In fact, data from a number of studies which use actual measurements (rather than simulations like this study) has shown that methane is not present in the quantities suggested by the York study’s analysis based on ethane sampling.

    The study’s authors have stuck to their conclusions in the face of directly measured evidence that is highly contradictory to what they have simulated which should cause anyone who reads their material pause. They certainly like to create headlines! One might even wonder if they have an anti-fracking agenda. Things that make you go hmmmmmmmmm! ;o)

  5. Oh dear, best open up all the coal mines again if gas is worse than coal for emissions. Or maybe drain a few rice paddies and cull a few ruminant animals. That’ll get the methane emissions reduced. At the end of the day, by far the best way to clean up the atmosphere would be to make it compulsory for every citizen to plant 10 trees a year for the next decade. Now, that WOULD make a big difference at next to zero cost.

    [Typo corrected at poster’s request]

  6. Was already thinking I should email Greg Clark / BEIS stressing this issue when I see your article Ruth this morning!Thank you for the links. I may even do a What do they know FOI as we did on their financial status as if they know this then they must be held accountable for promoting ecocide!
    The real concerns here is that fugitive emissions of methane etc are a massive contributor to global warming and every well will leak sooner or later due to natural corrosion of concrete and casings as well as the untrapped and uncaptured methane that will continue to travel along fault lines and geology rising to the surface for indefinite time.
    We can never mend this shattering of the earth and mother nature will come (already is coming) back to bite us because we abuse her in this way.

    • Just a guess Suzie but I suspect UK standards of Gas production will be higher tha those in some countries from which we import gas, such as in the Middle East. If my assumption is correct, the more we use home produced gas, the less we contribute to worldwide fugitive emissions.

      By the way in the current cold spell we are producing about 20% of our electricity from coal! I suspect because the limited supply of gas is being diverting into home and industrial heating. If we could replace that reliance on coal as a reliable, non-weather dependent reserve source then we would be making a significant contribution to reducing methane and CO2.emissions.

      Regarding concern about Mother Earth I balance my concern with concern fo the millions of people who live on it and require an adequate source of affordable, reliable energy.

    • And the Australians are sweltering (temperatures breaking records). These are non-standard weather/climate patterns and we’re likely to get a lot more weirder climate as danger signs mount up. We’re passing a tipping point no doubt. Of course the climate change skeptics will see a few days/weeks of cold weather and say ‘aha gotcha’ but the bigger picture is pointing to undeniable, accelerating climate change… and human-caused greenhouse gases as the main culprit.

      Harder to grasp (and explain) whist in Britain though because a high proportion of the Arctic’s, and of Greenland’s melt-water will end up in the North Atlantic not only having a cooling effect but potentially shutting down the warm gulf stream due to stratification – of lighter, non-saline melt-water occupying the top layers of the sea. So Britain and parts of Northern Europe could actually get colder over the next ten years – causing even more complacency and nonsense from the skeptics here.

      • It’s very difficult to make your mind up about climate change when unusually hot weather, unusually cold weather and no change is provided as evidence of global warming, and equally on the other side usually hot weather is explained away and cold weather is seized upon as contrary evidence by the climate change sceptics. All very confusing but I guess weather is not the same thing as climate.

        There was a guy on Radio 4 this morning talking about the best methods of persuasion and he seemed to be saying the that emotions govern our attitudes far more than pure reason.

  7. No Jack. We are seeing the impact of instant global transmission of “news”, real and fake, and then more transmission from those who want to be “experts” on what is posted. Could it just be the answer to these alarmed scientists might just be the need for more research funding, followed by a nice little “conference” in Rio?
    Absolutely same reaction to snow in the Sahara, but it does from time to time.

    • So says your ideology Martin. You should get real and try and break out of the climate-skeptic’s echo chamber. The hard facts, and hard science is out there but you wont find it in The Times or your FF industry mags.

  8. You’ve got to love Ken Cronin for his continuous own goals.

    Quote “Relying on data collection from 2011 is outdated as far as shale gas is concerned”. Can someone tell me how many times he’s used the 2012 Royal Society report.

    Every time he replies these days he helps the Anti lobby.

    This is almost as big as him telling the public that ‘shale gas is for plastics’.

  9. No PhilipP, it is too hard for me. I have to recognise how I lack the necessary intelligence. Just like the Courts of this land, they are so simple they are being manipulated left right and centre.
    I’m not sure the new recruitment drive will be too much of a success on a platform of the anti truth is the only intelligent way. Bit too counter intuitive, and already been tried, and failed. Mind you, perhaps a step forward from scaremongering.

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