Here's the Good News About Fracking

A drilling rig is seen on March 20, 2012 outside Wyalusing, Pennsylvania Photograph by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

It’s hard to do a dance about methane leakage numbers, but anyone worried about global warming should.

The University of Texas on Tuesday morning released the results of a study suggesting that the amount of methane that escapes during the drilling of a natural gas well is about 1 percent, much less than the government—and across-the-board opponents of fracking—had previously thought. Methane is the main component of natural gas. When burned in an engine, it is a relatively clean source of energy. When released unburned, it is thought to be as powerful a greenhouse gas as any fossil fuel. Keeping it underground while drilling for it is supremely important. This study suggests that this is possible.

The study (PDF) was sponsored by oil companies and environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund. One may naturally be suspicious of any study that includes participation by an economically interested group; energy companies provided access to some 500 wells during the study. But this one is peer-reviewed and appears credible.

One can be suspicious of environmental groups, too. The EDF’s spokesman, Eric Pooley, worked at Bloomberg Businessweek for a time. Two years ago, when he last visited, he was asked if natural gas might not provide a solution, and he responded that the supply chain leakage of methane negated any beneficial effects of clean-burning gas. So this may represent a change of perspective from the environmental lobby as well. “It’s not a magic bullet,” Pooley said when reached this morning. “It doesn’t get us all the way we want to go, but it is good news.”

The rest of the pipeline chain includes pipes and valves and holding tanks that exist throughout the world. Oil companies, occasionally suspected of not working in the public interest, have every reason to want to stop the leakage of methane at the wellhead and along the way to any engine that uses it. Gas escaping into the sky, after all, is money.

Today’s news suggests that, although we are still at grave risk of warming the planet, we are making progress. It would have been hard to say this even five years ago.

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