Emissions of climate-busting methane in the three biggest fracking regions in the United States are five times higher than previously believed, according to a new paper published last week in the journal Science.
That’s because flaring—the process of burning off waste gas rather than venting it into that atmosphere—only consumes an estimated 91.1% of the methane, not 98% as industry and governments previously assumed.
The peer-reviewed study attributes the gap to unlit flares and inefficient combustion at fracking fields in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, the Eagle Ford Basin in Texas, and the Bakken region in North Dakota, representing 80% of the country’s total fracking capacity.
“While the difference between 98% and 91.1% can seem small on paper, in reality it means that 43 million more tons per year of methane every year are pouring into the atmosphere—the equivalent of the emissions from almost three million cars and trucks,” Oil and Gas Watch explains.
Methane is a climate super-pollutant that carries about 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, the crucial time span in which humanity will be scrambling to get climate change under control.
With a half-million people living within five kilometres of flares in the three basin, “unlit and partially combusted flares have the potential to expose front-line communities to a cocktail of co-pollutants that present risks of acute and/or chronic health impacts,” researchers Riley Duren and Deborah Gordon added in a separate commentary.
Oil and Gas Watch says air pollution in the Permian is a serious enough problem that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to declare that the region’s ozone pollution exceeds federal standards.
Separate research released this week by Global Energy Monitor (GEM) warns that the United States, the European Union, and other countries that signed the highly-touted Global Methane Pledge during last year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow have been phasing out their coal-fired power plants, but replacing them with fossil gas, Grist reports. The report points to methane’s tendency to leak out of wells, pipelines, and other infrastructure on its journey from fracking sites to power plants.
“Calling gas ‘clean’ or ‘green’ will never change the fact that it’s just as bad for the climate, and in some cases worse, than coal,” said GEM project manager and report co-author Jenny Martos.