March 24th, 2016

Jokes about cattle burping and farting greenhouse gases notwithstanding, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters titled A large increase in U.S. methane emissions over the past decade inferred from satellite data and surface observations shows a far more dangerous source: methane leaks from fracking. The paper’s abstract warns:

The global burden of atmospheric methane has been increasing over the past decade, but the causes are not well understood. National inventory estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicate no significant trend in U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions from 2002 to present. Here we use satellite retrievals and surface observations of atmospheric methane to suggest that U.S. methane emissions have increased by more than 30 percent over the 2002–2014 period. The trend is largest in the central part of the country, but we cannot readily attribute it to any specific source type. This large increase in U.S. methane emissions could account for 30–60 percent of the global growth of atmospheric methane seen in the past decade.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of, the largest global grassroots organizing campaign on climate change, writing in Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry for The Nation calls the leaks:

These leaks are big enough to wipe out a large share of the gains from the Obama administration’s work on climate change—all those closed coal mines and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, it’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years. [Emphasis in original, JH] The methane story is utterly at odds with what we’ve been telling ourselves, not to mention what we’ve been telling the rest of the planet. It undercuts the promises we made at the climate talks in Paris. It’s a disaster—and one that seems set to spread.

I drive between Northeastern and Southeastern Ohio along I-77 several times a year to visit family on the Ohio River and before the local crash of the fracking industry here I was smacked silly by the unrelenting number of trucks associated with fracking driving in both directions. In my two most recent trips I saw none of those trucks. The slump in China’s economy and the resulting drop in global fuel demands driving that change is temporary. China will recover and energy demands will to up again and the frackers will reawaken like the walking dead they are.

We have an opportunity, however, to seal the crypts. McKibben concludes from the Harvard data that:

We need to stop the fracking industry in its tracks, here and abroad. Even with optimistic numbers for all the plausible leaks fixed, [Cornell scientist Robert] Howarth says, methane emissions will keep rising if we keep fracking.

This election year may also have profound consequences globally McKibben writes.

There was one oddly reassuring number in the Harvard satellite data: The massive new surge of methane from the United States constituted somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the global growth in methane emissions this past decade. In other words, the relatively small percentage of the planet’s surface known as the United States accounts for much (if not most) of the spike in atmospheric methane around the world. Another way of saying this is: We were the first to figure out how to frack. In this new century, we’re leading the world into the natural-gas age, just as we poured far more carbon into the 20th-century atmosphere than any other nation. So, thank God, now that we know there’s a problem, we could warn the rest of the planet before it goes down the same path.

Except we’ve been doing exactly the opposite. We’ve become the planet’s salesman for natural gas—and a key player in this scheme could become the next president of the United States. When Hillary Clinton took over the State Department, she set up a special arm, the Bureau of Energy Resources, after close consultation with oil and gas executives. This bureau, with 63 employees, was soon helping sponsor conferences around the world. And much more: Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that the secretary of state was essentially acting as a broker for the shale-gas industry, twisting the arms of world leaders to make sure US firms got to frack at will.

To take just one example, an article in Mother Jones [How Hillary Clinton’s State Department Sold Fracking to the World] based on the WikiLeaks cables reveals what happened when fracking came to Bulgaria. In 2011, the country signed a $68 million deal with Chevron, granting the company millions of acres in shale-gas concessions. The Bulgarian public wasn’t happy: Tens of thousands were in the streets of Sofia with banners reading Stop Fracking With Our Water. But when Clinton came for a state visit in 2012, she sided with Chevron (one of whose executives had bundled large sums for her presidential campaign in 2008). In fact, the leaked cables show that the main topic of her meetings with Bulgaria’s leaders was fracking. Clinton offered to fly in the “best specialists on these new technologies to present the benefits to the Bulgarian people,” and she dispatched her Eurasian energy envoy, Richard Morningstar, to lobby hard against a fracking ban in neighboring Romania. Eventually, they won those battles—and today, the State Department provides “assistance” with fracking to dozens of countries around the world, from Cambodia to Papua New Guinea.

So if the United States has had a terrible time tracking down and fixing its methane leaks, ask yourself how it’s going to go in Bulgaria. If Canada finds that sealing leaks is an “unresolved engineering challenge,” ask yourself how Cambodia’s going to make out. If the State Department has its way, then in a few years Harvard’s satellites will be measuring gushers of methane from every direction.


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