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Scientists: U.S. Climate Credibility Getting Fracked

As fracking catapults the United States to the top of the list of the world’s largest crude oil and natural gas producers, climate scientists worry that the nation's booming fossil fuels production is growing too quickly with too little concern about its impact on climate change, possibly endangering America’s efforts to curb global greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. is likely to become the world’s top producer of crude oil and natural gas by the end of 2013, producing more hydrocarbons than either Russia or Saudi Arabia, the Energy Information Administration recently announced.

An oil and gas production site and crude oil storage tank near Dacono, Colo.
Credit: Bobby Magill

America achieved its new role as world leader in crude oil and natural gas production because of advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology, that have made tapping hard-to-reach shale gas and oil deposits more economically feasible than ever before, according to the EIA.

Energy development in four shale oil plays alone — in Texas, along the Gulf Coast, in North Dakota and in California — was tapping a store of 24 billion barrels of crude oil considered technically recoverable, according to a 2011 EIA report on emerging U.S. shale oil and gas plays.

But it’s also happening in the suburbs of Denver, where oil and gas wells tapping the Niobrara shale and other hydrocarbon-bearing formations are being drilled in and around residential neighborhoods. It's happening in North Dakota, where companies tapping the Bakken shale hope to send their crude to market using the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. It’s happening in the Marcellus shale of western Pennsylvania and throughout the Northeast, where the EIA reported this week that natural gas production has increased 30 percent  — an increase of 3.2 billion cubic feet per day — so far this this year over 2012.

The EIA reported Oct. 4 U.S. petroleum production has increased 7 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units) since 2008, particularly because of growth in oil production in the Eagle Ford shale region of South Texas, the Permian Basin area of West Texas and in the Bakken shale region of western North Dakota. At the same time, natural gas production increased by 3 quadrillion Btu, primarily because of production growth in the eastern U.S.

The U.S. is also the world’s chief crude oil consumer, burning 18.6 million barrels of crude and other liquid fossil fuels per day in September and producing 10.9 million barrels per day. China, the world’s chief oil importer, used 10.9 million barrels and produced 4.6 million barrels, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Climate scientists say America’s oil and gas boom is having unintended consequences, not just for the climate or the local environment in energy producing regions, but for America's global role in tackling climate change.

“As we produce more, we burn more, and we send more CO2 per person into the atmosphere than almost any other country,” said Susan Brantley, geosciences professor and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Pennsylvania State University. “We are blanketing our world with greenhouse gas, warming the planet.”

An oil and gas well is completed near the Medicine Bow Mountains in Colorado's North Park near Walden, Colo.
Credit: Bobby Magill

Several years ago in Pennsylvania, scientists were talking about carbon sequestration in shale formations deep underground, she said.

“However, since 2005, we have been fracking shales and have drilled 6,000 shale gas wells,” she said. “This extraordinary rate of development is good for our country in terms of jobs and energy prices, but bad in that we are not worrying as much about the greenhouse gas problem as we are about exploiting gas with hydrofracking.

“It is hard for us to have credibility in global discussions of greenhouse gas unless we can use this new source of gas a transitional fuel that bridges us from hydrocarbons to renewable, non-carbon fuels,” she said.

Even among advocates for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, there is disagreement about what the U.S. role as chief oil and gas producer means for America’s credibility on climate change.

“Those who already see the U.S. as a major bad actor will continue to do so, and cite this hydrocarbon boom as further evidence,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force. “By contrast, if the U.S. took a more progressive global stance on overall emissions control, increased domestic production would be probably irrelevant; the world would be relieved to see U.S. leadership.”

America being a leader in oil and gas production isn’t entirely bad news for emissions, he said.

U.S. has tighter environmental standards than many other oil-producing countries, and fugitive methane and carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be less common in the U.S. than in developing countries, he said.

“On the other hand, if added U.S. production lowers global prices, which are not offset by OPEC price maintenance responses, marginal global consumption and associated downstream combustion emissions could be greater,” Cohen said. “It is hard to calculate these two vectors and to what extent they might offset each other.”

There are environmental advantages to being the world leader in oil and gas production, said William Fleckenstein, petroleum engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines. 

U.S. oil production is displacing foreign production, removing the chance of an oil spill while the crude is in transit from remote foreign fields to consumers in the U.S., he said. 

"There is some justice to producing the hydrocarbons where they are used — no enviornmental damage to (the) producing foreign area for U.S. consumer benefit," Fleckenstein said.

But there are environmental advantages of U.S natural gas production, as well, he said. 

"U.S. natural gas is much cheaper on a BTU basis than oil or coal, so (there are) less greenhouse gases," he said, adding that the U.S. may begin to export natural gas to Europe and Japan, taking the place of coal-fired power plants there.

Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist and researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a professor at Stanford University, said the rapid expansion of the U.S. energy industry is helping to inexorably transform the planet into a place more and more challenging for people to live in.

“Expanding our fossil fuel infrastructure is more-or-less saying that we don’t give a damn about future generations,” he said Wednesday, the same day the journal Nature published a study showing that human greenhouse gas emissions are transforming the planet so rapidly that 5 billion people currently live in places where the climate will exceed historical bounds of temperature variability by 2050 if emissions continue unabated.

Caldeira said that if current trends in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption continue, the climate will change into something that hasn’t existed on Earth since the dinosaurs were alive more than 100 million years ago.

“We can pretend that this is OK to do,” Caldeira said. “But realize that if the founding fathers of our country had been in our position and made the same choices we are making, today the oceans would be acidified, the ice caps would be melting, the seas would be rising, heat in many places would be unbearable, many ecosystems would be gone, and the extractible fossil fuel supply would be exhausted. What would we think of them if they had done that to us?”

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