What the frack? Could fracking be the cause of recent spikes in methane?

  Last updated August 19, 2019 at 12:28 pm


The growing levels of methane continues to be an ambiguous issue for science with a new report suggesting the increase could be caused by fracking.

fracking_oil mining_the planet

Fracking could be behind the increase of methane in the atmosphere. Credit: grandriver

Growing levels of methane in the atmosphere are not just caused by cow burps and farts, according to international research which suggests that spikes in the levels of this greenhouse gas can be attributed to the mining process known as fracking.

It’s not great news, especially with a network of oil wells, that will involve fracking, proposed for the Great Sandy Desert which is set to become Australia’s biggest oil-producing project.

Methane goes away quickly compared to carbon dioxide

According to the study, by Robert Howarth from Cornell University in the US, the chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere suggests it was released by fracking.

The study concludes that more than half of the increase in emissions from fossil fuels globally over the past decade could be from shale-gas production in North America.

Fracking involves using high-pressure water to fracture shale deposits underground in order to access natural gas.

Howarth suggests that if we reduce methane emissions, we can slow global warming to meet the UN’s target to keep warming below 2°C.

“If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate,”  Howarth says. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”

Howarth believes that previous studies had wrongly attributed atmospheric methane levels to sources such as cows or wetlands.

Airborne methane could be from transportation rather than fracking

But other scientists warn that the assumptions made in the paper may be questionable.

fracking_oil mining_the planet

Fracking site in Texas. Credit: grandriver

“The study itself admits that even if the increased methane concentrations were from shale that they are not a direct result of the hydraulic fracturing process,” Quentin Fisher from the University of Leeds, UK, told the UK Science Media Centre (UK SMC).

Fisher suggests that methane increases associated with shale gas production may stem from other sources, completely removed from fracking.

“The USA has an aging gas transportation network, which results in significant methane leakages,” he says.

And other scientists agreed that the source of airborne methane generated by the oil industry could be issues with transporting gas, rather than the fracking process itself.

“Transporting any gas, whether ‘natural’ or ‘shale’, over large distances is always a bad idea due to leaks in pipelines, transfers etc,” says Peter Style,  from Keele University, UK.

Fracking is an area we can control

But the paper does raise some critical issues surrounding the control of methane levels in our atmosphere, according to scientists.

Grant Allen, from the University of Manchester, UK, says that although methane can make its way into the atmosphere from a wide range of sources, fracking is an area we can control.

“Natural sources are not easily targeted. Controlling emissions from fracking, and fossil fuels in general, represents a potential policy quick fix to stemming the rise of methane still further.”

“If we can control the man-made methane emission sources that we can, then methane levels could yet be stabilised.”

You can read the UK SMC’s Expert Reaction here.


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About the Author

Cale Matthews

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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