Washington, D.C. Feb. 10, 2020 – As the country makes little progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, new research calls into question the supposed climate benefits of the switch from coal to fracked gas-fired power generation. That finding comes in Fracking’s Bridge to Climate Chaos: Exposing the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Deadly Spin, a new report from the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
Over recent years, reductions in emissions from the power sector have been touted as one of the few bright spots in the drive to decarbonize society. But a more comprehensive accounting of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions linked to the production, distribution and combustion of coal and gas shows that little if any reduction in emissions has been achieved.
“This new research makes one thing absolutely clear: Unless we ban fracking, these terrifying climate trends will intensify,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “This report underscores the toll that fracking has taken on clean air, clean water and a safe climate. And the industry is looking to expand its footprint by exporting gas across the world, which only deepens the risks here and abroad. Fracked gas is not a bridge to a cleaner future—it is a foolish perpetuation of the very dangerous fossil fuel status quo.”
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Meanwhile, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Darren Soto (D-FL) announced late last week the introduction of the Fracking Ban Act, legislation that would ban fracking and the infrastructure enabling it everywhere in America.
In response to the report, Senator Bernie Sanderssaid: “Fracking is a danger to our water supply. It’s a danger to the air we breathe, it has resulted in more earthquakes, and it’s highly explosive. To top it all off, it’s contributing to climate change. This should be a no-brainer. If we are serious about clean air and drinking water, if we are serious about combating climate change, the only safe and sane way to move forward is to ban fracking nationwide.”
The new research shows that over the past decade, the combined emissions from coal and gas power plants declined only 10.4 percent—far less than the reductions claimed by other researchers and the gas industry. Moreover, if emissions continued to decline at this pace, greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector would not reach zero until 2100.
The new Food & Water Watch research is based on data from the Energy Information Administration, an academic emissions inventory and a recent Cornell University study. This model evaluates the lifecycle emissions of electricity generation, including methane emissions from coal and natural gas production, processing, transportation and end use. Largely as a result of the fracking boom, the research finds that methane emissions from gas produced for power plants have an even greater climate impact than the CO2 emitted at power plants.
Even if every coal plant was decommissioned by 2030 and replaced by gas-powered electricity, greenhouse gas emissions would still continue to rise. And if natural gas remains the dominant energy source through 2050, annual greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector will be higher in the coming decades than they are today.
The report also makes clear that focusing on the supposed benefits of relying on gas for power generation obscures other problems. While the industry touts the replacement of coal-fired power with gas, only about one-third of the gas consumption goes to generating electricity. Narrowing the focus to the power sector ignores the substantial climate consequences of the remaining 65 percent of natural gas consumption, which includes plastics production and providing heat in buildings.
The growing role of gas in the climate crisis remains a front-and-center concern. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term. Methane is considered responsible for about one-third of the total warming since the industrial revolution, and atmospheric methane levels have been rising since 2007.
The report also documents the many ways that methane can leak at every stage of the gas system, a serious emissions problem that is likely grossly undercounted and cannot be regulated. And it points out that the growing plans to export fracked gas by building massive new LNG terminals — a move that is vital to rescuing the financially flailing fracking industry—will also drive up methane emissions.