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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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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on October 10th, 2013

These facts and this perspective underscore the fractured and nationally schizophrenic nature of the US attitude towards climate change and climate change policy.

Not reducing global emissions so as to mitigate climate change is insanity. We have all heard the warnings. Some climate optimists have predicted that the current huge and continuing global investment in fossil fuel reserves is in fact the next big financial bubble set to disrupt the global economy when - not if - it eventually bursts, simply because logic and a basic survival instinct dictate that those reserves can never be used. Big gas, big oil and big coal of course don’t see it that way. For now, short term special interests greed aided by schizophrenic energy policies seems to be firmly in charge in the US.

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By Zack Schlesinger
on October 10th, 2013

All fossil fuels, including natural gas, produce a high level of CO2. The following table gives you a pretty good idea where the potential for really lowering CO2 emissions lies:

Coal: 1800 grams of CO2 per kW-hr (kiloWatt-hr) of electricity produced in a power plant)
Oil:          1300 grams of CO2 per kW-hr
Natural Gas: 1000 grams of CO2 per kW-hr

Solar:    50 grams of CO2 per kW-hr
Nuclear:  55 grams of CO2 per kW-hr
Wind:    25 grams of CO2 per kW-hr

The big differences are between the fossil fuels and the low-carbon alternatives. That is where the potential for seriously reducing CO2 emissions lies.

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By Bob Bingham (Kerikeri)
on October 11th, 2013

I would not worry about the climate credibility of the USA because as the biggest polluters you have none. The squandering of energy is embedded in the culture and iis not likely to change.

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By Lewis Cleverdon
on October 11th, 2013

Dave - while I’d agree that there is great confusion in the US over AGW, I’d differ over its origins, and their accurate identification is plainly critical to countering them. Consider what chickenfeed fraction of fossil lobby profits is spent on denial propaganda - most of which is achieved by the threat to media outlets of loss of advertizing revenues and via outright profitable media ownership, such as the Saudi/Murdoch-owned Fox News.
With the fossil lobby generating around 8% of US GDP, and the great majority of US corporations having no inherent loyalty to fossil energy and having full access to information on the economic threat of AGW, we should be seeing counter-funding of writers, media and politicians to massively outweigh the fossil lobby’s chickenfeed outlay - but in fact we see zilch.
Given the stakes, there has to be some imperative but unspoken motivation preventing that chickenfeed counter-funding by the great majority of US corporations.
Obama’s conduct in adopting de facto Cheney’s climate policy of a ‘Brinkmanship of Inaction’ with China is similarly inexplicable by a loyalty to one sector that provides just 8% of GDP, especially in view of his 2008 election stance.
It seems highly likely that it is the same imperative but unspoken motivation that has driven his near-total inaction on climate since 2009, even to the extent of blocking the EPA from meeting its legal duty to regulate CO2 until an NGO recently started suing it, and even now its plan seems uncertain to ensure the meeting of Obama’s derisory ‘pledge’ of a 3.67% CO2 cut by 2020 off the legal 1990 baseline. Notably the prime outcome of the denial machine has been the deflection of practically all criticism away from Obama’s inaction.
The most plausible candidate I’ve seen for that imperative but unspoken motivation is the simplest: the USA’s paramount bipartisan policy priority since WW2 has been the maintenance of its global economic dominance, which China’s growth threatens to usurp in the coming years. This threatens both the power of the US state and the profitability of all US corporations, including the fossil lobby.
It was clear before Cheney took office that China declined to enter a ruinous arms race, meaning that some other strategy was required. Notably in ‘95 Cheney’s recent close collaborator over SDI, the nuclear scientist/strategist Edward Teller, had a paper published on the control of AGW via stratospheric sulphate aerosols, couched in terms of “should the USA one day find that desirable.” In effect it offered a plausible exit strategy for a policy of letting AGW rip.
At the time it was widely assumed that extreme weather impacts would hit developing countries, such as China, far harder than the USA, and that the latter’s huge wealth would make its lesser damages far more affordable. With the US having far greater farm outputs per capita, if the policy were pursued to its conclusion, crop failures, food shortages and civil unrest in China could be expected to generate regime change (as was achieved in the USSR) and thus the end of China’s bid for global economic dominance.
It might be argued that the US policy of intransigence on the climate treaty and of inaction at home is due to some other reason, and that its result of the rising disruption of China’s agriculture is merely accidental - but if so then America is probably the first empire in all of history to be cutting its rival’s food supplies by accident.
While the analysis of a ‘Brinkmanship of Inaction’ meshes neatly with the interests and conduct of all major players, in practice the policy appears increasingly problematic. Rather than the US facing lesser climate impacts, Munich Re’s 40-year database of catastrophic impacts worldwide shows they’ve been rising far faster there than in any comparable region, while the greatly superior US spending power has been transformed in China’s favour. It is thus possible that the recent Whitehouse “Pivot to Asia” (using naval assets ironically funded by China’s loans) actually reflects a loss of confidence in the strategy’s sustainability.
In terms of putting an end to this reckless and genocidal strategy, its major vulnerabilities appear to include its exposure to the US public as the logical explanation of US conduct serving the corporations, the highlighting of its grossly immoral and illegitimate nature, and the emphasis on its reckless and counter-productive effects both at home and in clear-felling declining US credibility abroad.
Whether the policy may be overturned in time for the crucial treaty negotiations in Dec 2015 may depend on just how well this analysis is propagated, accepted and acted on by American climate scientists and campaigners. Nobody else can make nearly as much difference in the time available.
All the best,

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on October 11th, 2013

Bob in Kerikeri, New Zealand: With respect to climate change mitigation, I agree that the US does not have climate credibility either in a political or a practical sense. Far from it in fact and everyone knows it. US emissions have increased above 1990 levels while in many other developed countries emissions have at least declined relative to 1990 and in some cases by quite substantial amounts. So US emissions clearly could and should have been reduced much more than they have been. In fact as a developed and technically advanced country it should be leading the way and it is most definitely not doing that. But what about New Zealand Bob? According to UNFCCC data New Zealand is not exactly a poster child for emissions reductions either and your country is a developed country too. In fact GHG emissions there have grown compared with 1990 levels much more than those of the US whether you include land use changes or not.

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on October 12th, 2013

Lewis – that’s quite a theory!  Remember that this is the country where if you have enough political clout – in this case Schwan and ConAgra - you can have frozen pizza officially declared a vegetable by the USDA so that schools can continue to serve it to children as part of a healthy lunch. And sure, Obama signed it into law – but Michelle didn’t divorce him. So certainly, the US culture and its politics are often puzzling and that is no less the case with the issue of climate change. Sociologists, psychologists and just about every other …ist have puzzled over aspects of this. The way I see it, climate change is not entirely a special case in that these days a lot of other deeply serious yet politicized issues are also not being solved in the US political process. And right now of course there’s not even a functioning central government here. So I think that at some point you have to just realize that it is a large, complex and not altogether rational and deterministic system. Some may consider that a polite understatement. Right now Congress’ approval rating is around 5%. Of course, historians will debate all this centuries from now.

Anyway, the political power of the fossil fuel lobby here is a well known fact. The well funded and organized climate change misinformation campaign is another known fact. That it is for instance legal to lie on the TV News in the US is yet another known fact and also a heavily exploited tool by various charismatic media pundits that have of course also weaved in large doses of divisive issues linked to politics and even religion. This is and has been all aimed at the pool of honest US skeptics and the everyday curious – in other words the general public. Some of the US general public run all those other important businesses that you mention in your comment. They are no segregated in a secret room somewhere, privy to special information. No I’m sure they are just as confused. Information and misinformation all at once, all labeled the truth and designed so that no one who is not a scientist could possibly form a reasonable and politically unbiased opinion on the issue. And by the way let’s make sure we try to discredit the only people who do actually understand the issue such as the outspoken climate scientists like Dr. James Hansen, formerly of NASA, so that we can channel all the information via the ‘real experts’ at FOX and Rush Limbaugh and so on. But all that is slowly changing here. People don’t like droughts, floods, wildfires and so on. Being a climate change denier isn’t quite the Ok thing it used to be here anymore. In fact logically, if I dare invoke that, I think the actual continuing US experience of climate change impacts guarantees that tackling climate change will eventually become a bipartisan issue. Unfortunately that will be pretty late in the day.

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By dan_in_illinois
on October 16th, 2013

“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.”

Here’s what I think the climate scientists are really thinking:  As fracking catapults the United States to the top of the list of the world’s largest crude oil and natural gas producers there will be even fewer individuals who will believe our theories about the end of the world occurring through AGW and, as a result, our source of grant funding will dry up.

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By Marjorie (Providence, RI 02909)
on November 12th, 2013

I am more convinced than ever that the human species is a suicidal race.  We are looking down the barrel of devastating, irreparable climate change and we collectively shrug our shoulders.  Maybe we don’t deserve this planet….

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