Why the Fracking Boom Probably Won’t Slow Global Warming

North Dakota oil production Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The fracking revolution in the U.S. has dramatically expanded the supply of unconventional natural gas and lowered energy prices around the world. Many other countries, from Britain to China, are now eyeing geological surveys and hoping that hydraulic fracturing can tap into natural gas locked in deep shale deposits. The World Resources Institute estimates that if all the planet’s theoretically recoverable shale gas could be developed, the total supply of natural gas would increase 47 percent.

Because burning natural gas for energy emits less CO2 than burning other fossil fuels, including coal, many analysts have assumed that surging shale gas usage would also be a boon for curbing climate change. Alas, a study published this week in the journal Nature shows that isn’t necessarily true.

Scientists in the U.S., Germany, Italy, Austria, and Australia synthesized the results of several independent forecasts of global economic growth, energy use, and climate through 2050. None of the forecasts showed the shale boom actually lowering greenhouse gas emissions, according to the findings published in Nature. The projections showed natural gas replacing not only dirty coal but also hydropower and other forms of low-carbon energy.

The process of extracting shale gas also releases significant amounts of methane, another greenhouse gas. In 2012 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that methane accounted for 9 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

“Although market penetration of globally abundant gas may substantially change the future energy system,” the Nature authors concluded, “it is not necessarily an effective substitute for climate change mitigation policy.”

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