Fracked Gas: the debt-ridden morass formerly pimped as a ‘bridge fuel’

the depths of the Great Recession, fracking took hold in American shale basins, spawning an unending, debt-fueled glut of domestic oil and gas. To prop up the industry, a euphemistic nomenclature was propagated, undergirded by the ubiquitous bridge fuel trope¹.

Bridge Collapse| https://giphy.com/

Linking together a dirty past (coal), a necessarily muddled present and a bright, clean mythical future, the Natural Gas as Bridge Fuel trope has always required a herculean suspension of disbelief. In practice, a bridge fuel operates to continue fossil fuel dependencies, bridging over inconvenient scientific facts in service of a mythical utopian future. Due to a myriad of factors, 2020 will see the final collapse of this collective delusion, swallowed by the cold waters of scientific fact and climate realities.

Five reasons the bridge fuel trope, once so enduring, is about to fully collapse

Reason I — Instrumentation

To Measure is to Know

— Lord Kelvin

While the ‘stimulating’ processes that define fracking as an ‘unconventional’ technique have been around since the 1860s, scaled applications across American shale basins were not fully implemented until the early 2000s². Between 2005 and 2010 the shale-gas industry in the United States grew by 45% a year³. The bridge fuel trope, first coined by the American Gas Association a decade prior, became the go-to sales slogan, deployed by Obama-era lobbyists steering public policy towards rapidly expanding and intensifying fracked gas⁴.

With the ascendancy of fracking came a series of academic attempts to quantify both the colossal scale of the new extraction processes; and importantly estimate a ‘leak rate’, i.e. escaped methane — both the primary component of ‘natural gas’, and an exponentially potent greenhouse gas when compared to ‘traditional’ CO2.

Satellite imaging of flaring atop Permian Basin fracked oil & gas fields, approximately 38 miles north of Pecos, Texas. | Data: NASA Black Marble ‘Night Lights’ + Yandex Satellite Base. Mapping visualization by author.

As the bridge fuel trope rests on the assumption that fracked gas is much ‘better’ for the climate than ‘traditional’ CO2 — specifically ‘traditional’ emissions from coal-fired power generation — the ‘leak rate’ became hotly contested in industry, academia and the EPA. Presently, analysis methods and related instrumentation fall into 3 general buckets⁵:

  • Top Down: measurements taken from satellites & airborne sensors.
  • Bottom-up Emission Inventories: measurements derived from facility-level and regional point source sensors and analysis processes.
  • Synthesis Approaches: harmonization of top and bottom-up approaches designed to deliver a comprehensive analysis product.

Using these various analysis frameworks, the literature base has expanded significantly in the intervening years. As might be expected with ever better instrumentation and refined methodologies, early studies now appear relatively coarse approximations of gas’ leak rate. An early 2014 study often sited as a baseline for a full gas supply chain leak rate put it between 2.3 and 11.7%.⁶ To this day, the EPA still holds the leak rate to be just 1.4%⁷. In 2018, a large, comprehensive Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study determined the leak rate to be 60% greater than the EPA rate at 2.3%⁸. In 2019, Research lead by Dr. Robert Howarth at Cornell University updated previous work based on a new carbon signature methodology, landing the overall leak rate at 3.5%⁹.

Regardless of the more narrow leak rate itself, there is no disagreement that human-induced methane is on the rise, largely due to fracking and its infrastructures designed to gather, transport and consume gas. Dr. Howarth’s summarization is telling:

“[The] recent increase in methane in massive,” Howarth said. “It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen and shale gas is a major player.”

Importantly, human-induced methane can now be visualized. With refined instrumentation has also come new open data — first and foremost from the TROMPOMI instrument (Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument) via the European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel 5 Precursor Satellite. The instrument measures methane as parts per billion (ppb) at a vertical distance of .5 to 7 miles from the earth’s surface, with a horizontal resolution of approximately 7 x 7 km. These resolutions are appropriate to visualize methane averages over time, denoting regional hot vs. cold spots. In the case of the Permian basin across New Mexico and Texas, its clear from mapping the Trompomi CH4 product that an expansive hot spot is spatially consistent within the basin, typified by intense fracking extraction activities for both oil and gas.

The Permian Basin situated across New Mexico and Texas. Basin methane hot spots shown in yellow-orange-red, cold spots in blue. Data: Sentinel 5 TROMPOMI, Mapped by author.

At a slightly larger scale, highly concentrated well pad locations southwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are spatially consistent with elevated methane hot spots in the 2019 TROMPOMI dataset.

Intense fracking activity southwest of Pittsburgh, PA spatially consistent with persistent methane hot spots across several counties. Methane hot spots shown in yellow-orange-red, cold spots in blue. Data: Sentinel 5 TROMPOMI, Mapped by author.

The trend towards increasing resolution and open access to methane datasets will likely continue through the early 2020’s. One company, GHGSat Inc., is poised to deploy ‘microwave oven’ sized satellites that can sense methane with a ground resolution as high as 164 square feet — ideal for facility level emission detection. NASA has made public plans to launch the Geostationary Carbon Observatory, or “GeoCarb”, allowing as many as 10 million daily observations, including methane plume’s near the earth’s surface. With increasing access to data, both the public and the scientific community can provide a powerful check on subterfuge deployed by the oil and gas industry to hide and minimize their persistent, unchecked, uncontrolled methane problem.

Reason II — Maintenance is Disaster

The decline in sector methane emissions is a testament to the widespread efforts of the oil and natural gas industry to reduce emissions from its operations. EPA largely attributes the declines “to a decrease in emissions from distribution, transmission and storage, processing, and exploration.”

— Energy In Depth, A project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America

To buttress the bridge fuel trope, the oil and gas industry has recently picked up on a trend found in the EPA GHG inventory data, claiming that it amounts to a “whopping” decrease since 1990 levels¹¹. While indeed there is a downward trend in methane emissions across the sector in aggregate; it is a consistently slight trend, nowhere near the reduction rate necessary to achieve meaningful control over fracking’s methane problem. What’s more, and rarely discussed, is the EPA reporting methodology itself which precludes unknown and unmonitored leaks as well as numerous ‘small’ emitters that fall under the significant reporting threshold of 25,000 metric tons of CO2e per year.

A chart only the oil and gas industry can love: the ‘downward’ methane trend 2011–18. | Data: EPA Flight Database — GHG Inventory, Charted by author.

In the most active fracking basins, the previous national aggregate ‘downward’ methane trend significantly falls apart when considered across total CO2e emissions per basin. In the Permian basin, a review of the same EPA dataset detailing the >25,000 metric tons CO2e emitters found a significant increase in the total emission trend across NO2, CO2 and CH4 in total.

Permian Basin emissions show significant intensification across totaled CO2e GHG emission categories, 2011–18. | Data: EPA Flight Database — GHG Inventory, Charted by author.

While the EPA contends that its GHGRP reported data represents the majority of emissions in the United States, unmonitored, unknown leakage coupled with the exclusion of untold ‘smaller’ emitters below the 25,000 metric tons CO2e threshold are significant deficiencies. In short, the EPA data is less than comprehensive; any additional reporting would necessitate worse climate impacts, not better¹². But even analysis of the EPA data as it stands does not deliver a decisive victory to the oil and gas industry — quite the contrary. At best, the industry is clocking in very slight incremental improvements on its methane variable, all the while intensifying overall emissions within fracking basins. This level of performance is no better than the perpetual maintenance of a climate disaster.

Reason III — The Super Emitters

We didn’t focus on it because we weren’t sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error.

— Research scientist Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Pasadena, California.

The Four Corners Debacle

A decade ago, the United States was essentially flying blind in its attempts at top down methane analysis. By its own admission, NASA was unable to verify a persistent methane anomaly, dating 2003–09, known now as the Four Corners hotspot¹³. Measured via the European Space Agency’s Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY) instrument, the Four Corners hotspot, aptly named for the intersection of 4 southwestern states — Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico — consistently exhibited values nearly 3.5 times averaged background concentrations. Predating widespread fracking, researchers at the time were unable to draw the correlation that is now fully understood:

the methane emissions should not be attributed to fracking but instead to leaks in natural gas production and processing equipment in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, which is the most active coalbed methane production area in the country.

The Four Corners methane hot spot — SCIAMACHY instrument data, NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Michigan.

The Aliso Canyon Blowout

Shortly after Nasa’s Four Corners research was published in 2014, the public’s collective Veil of Ignorance surrounding ‘natural’ gas was fully pierced. On October 23, 2015, the Aliso Canyon ‘blowout’ in Southern California, alternatively referred to as a ‘leak’, was ‘discovered’. Not until mid-February of the following year was the ‘leak’ permanently plugged¹⁴. The extent of the climate impact was nothing less than climate disaster — all caught on [infrared] film for the public to see. In total, An estimated 97,100 tonnes of methane and 7,300 tonnes of ethane were directly released into the atmosphere¹⁵. What Exxon Valdez and Deep Water Horizon are to oil, Aliso Canyon is to ‘natural’ gas.

Belmont County, Ohio, 2018 — ‘Extreme Methane Leakage’

Fast forward exactly two years (February 15th, 2018), rural Belmont County, Ohio awakes to its own version of Aliso Canyon — the Powhatan Point XTO Well Pad Explosion.

The damaged well platform released an estimated 120 tons of methane per hour across 20 days, resulting in a massive emission increase — more than European countries like France, Spain and Norway emit over the course of a year. Yet in Ohio — an epicenter of the nation’s fracking frenzy — this accident accounted for just 25% of the state’s total annualized oil and gas methane emissions.

Regardless, in the emerging era of refined top down instrumentation, the 20 day release did not escape notice. Sure enough, the TROMPOMI instrument picked up the massive release on its 13th day, 27 February, 2018.

TROPOMI overpass 27 February 2018. Figure S3 — Supplementary Information¹⁶

With the TROMPOMI data, researchers were then able to extrapolate emission rates, visualize the emission trajectory and summarize its global impact not only on the climate itself, but overly optimistic assumptions embedded in global GHG accounting systems¹⁷:

Our study shows how [methane] emissions from large gas leakages due to accidents in the oil and gas sector can escape the greenhouse gas emission-accounting system, adding a significant source of uncertainty to the annual estimates reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the researchers wrote.

December 2019: just another Christmas in East Texas

On Christmas day 2019, 45 residents near Marshall, Texas found themselves caught up in an emergency evacuation due to a nearby Tanos Exploration LLC well blowout¹⁸. Lasting a week, the blowout was fully capped at the end of December. In the interim, the Planet Labs PlanetScope satellite constellation (3m resolution) captured the blowout progression dated December 24th, 26th and 30th.

Progression of Tanos Exploration LLC blowout, Marshall, Texas — pre-event, event, post-event. | Imagery: Planet Labs, PlanetScope.

The Tanos blowout garnered little national coverage — yet another typical oil and gas accident in one of America’s fracking basins. While Tanos Exploration II, LLC, reported a total emission balance of 313,266 metric tons of CO2e in 2018, its unclear if or how the company measured emission totals for this blowout; and if these emissions will be fully reported to the 2019 EPA GHG inventory.

As of 2015, DrillingInfo, now Enverus, reported more than 900,000 oil and gas wells across the nation¹⁹. Certainly in the last 5 years, thousands upon thousands of new wells have been drilled with hundreds of pipelines and associated gas infrastructure installed. With gas infrastructure intensification, blowouts, accidents and planned as well as unplanned ‘blowdowns’ will only increase, blowing up hopes of ratcheting down the industry’s annual methane emissions. With the rise of Super Emitters, the industry’s own intensification tars its veneer of control.

Reason VI— Climate Realities, Unfettered Growth

Climate change poses an existential risk to the oil and gas industry.

— Neil Beveridge, an analyst at Bernstein, a Wall Street research firm, recent note to clients.

Late in 2019, The Global Carbon Budget Project published its annual emissions trend summary, typifying gas’ growth rate as the fastest of any fossil fuel source.²⁰ Glen Peters, Research Director at CICERO, contextualized the finding as follows:

The weak growth in carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 is due to an unexpected decline in global coal use, but this drop is insufficient to overcome the robust growth in natural gas and oil consumption.

In other words, the promised coal-to-gas ‘fuel switching’ contrivance central to gas’ bridge fuel trope is now debunked.

Estimated gas emissions increase at +2.6%, relative to oil and coal rates. | Source: Global Carbon Budget Project.

Adding insult to injury, the increases in the gas sector’s GHG CO2e emissions are throughly consistent with the persistent upward global trend for the CH4 methane variable as reported by NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division.

Global Monthly Mean CH4 chart. | Source: ESRL Global Monitoring Division

Against this dire backdrop, the gas industry, egged on by the current American president, his Department of Energy and The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), is doing the one and only thing it knows how to do: build fracked gas infrastructure. Its latest incarnation, liquified natural gas (LNG) — designed to export America’s debt-ridden gas glut to the rest of the world — portends its worst climate impact yet. Requiring facilities known as ‘trains’, the volume of fracked gas is dramatically reduced by refrigeration to less than -161 °C, a necessary condition for overseas transport. Needless to say, the energy output and facility footprint needed to accomplish this transition is massive. Shown below in progress, the buildout of just one of several ‘train’ sections at the Cameron LNG facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana:

Construction of one of several LNG ‘trains’, Cameron LNG, Lake Charles, Louisiana. | Source: Google Earth Imagery.

Complicit with this colossal, incessant buildout, FERC has heartedly approved every LNG permit application that has come before it, resulting in a rapid intensification of facilities poised to begin construction in the early 2020's .

Proposed LNG projects will essentially triple the nation’s existing portfolio. | Data: FERC and Industry websites, Mapped and Charted by author.

Unbelievably, the FERC has conducted a total of ZERO cumulative, downstream emission impact studies for not only its LNG projects, but all its gas infrastructure projects. Although court ordered, FERC simply refuses to conduct this analysis, giving cart blanche emission status to every project before it. In the recording below, former commissioner Cheryl LaFleur recalls at length and detail her ‘own attempts’ at GHG emission calculations in the face of FERC’s refusal to do so — only underscoring this Federal agency’s twilight zone atmosphere of blind industry boosterism and blatant climate denialism.

Former FERC commissioner Cheryl LaFleur ‘own’ attempts at GHG emission calculations during House Committee NGA hearing, Feb 5, 2020.

It is increasingly evident that the gas industry and its various boosters are on a collision course with climate reality. During the earlier phases of fracking, the industry was able to hide behind coal’s ‘more awful’ emissions profile. No longer. The intensification of fracked gas production is now undeniably linked with its own, unique runaway emission trend.

Reason V— The Industry Tell

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

— Maya Angelou

Increasingly, fracked gas faces compounding pressures from both sides of its self-created bridge. With the collapse of coal, ‘fuel-switching’ is increasingly not between fossil fuels, but fossil fuels and renewable electricity²¹. Cost curves are pointing towards renewable electricity as the end destination with little use for the fracked gas bridge whatsoever²². Faced with obsolescence, the gas industry itself is now in full retreat from itself:

Gas should be seen as a destination fuel not just as a transport fuel or bridge fuel.

— Qatar Petroleum CEO Saad Sherida Al-Kaabi, panel discussion at the World Gas Conference (WGC), 2018

‘Destination Fuel’, ‘Foundation Fuel’, ‘Perfect Partner’ — all trial balloons released to see which branding contraption can deliver fracked gas past its current debt-ridden morass of overproduction, horrific methane disasters and uniquely ravaging emission trends. As fracked gas attempts to market itself past itself, the bridge it built is collapsing before everyone’s eyes.

[1] Origins of the ‘Bridge Fuel’ myth, a “New Species of Trouble” in the Risk Society of late modernity — https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0160597616628908

[2] Department of Energy Shale Gas Primer, 2009 — https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2013/03/f0/ShaleGasPrimer_Online_4-2009.pdf

[3] Shale of the Century — https://www.economist.com/business/2012/06/02/shale-of-the-century

[4] https://www.texastribune.org/2018/10/16/how-washington-unleashed-fossil-fuel-exports-and-sold-out-climate/

[5] Comparing top-down & bottom up estimates of oil & gas CH4 emissions: A spatially-resolved emission inventory for the Barnett Shale Region — https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/lyon_pres.pdf

[6] Toward a better understanding and quantification of methane emissions from shale gas development — https://www.pnas.org/content/111/17/6237

[7] EPA greenhouse gas emission and sinks — https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks-1990-2016

[8] Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) 2018 Study summarization — https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/the-u-s-natural-gas-industry-is-leaking-way-more-methane-than-previously-thought

[9] Cornell University Press Release for Dr. Howarth 2019 study — https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/08/study-fracking-prompts-global-spike-atmospheric-methane

[10] Meet the Satellites That Can Pinpoint Methane and Carbon Dioxide Leaks — https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/meet-the-satellites-that-can-pinpoint-methane-and-carbon-dioxide-leaks/

[11] Draft Federal Data: Oil and Natural Gas Methane Emissions Continue to Fall, Energy in Depth — https://www.energyindepth.org/draft-federal-data-oil-and-natural-gas-methane-emissions-continue-to-fall/

[12] Confusion reigns in calculating methane emissions — https://nmpoliticalreport.com/2019/08/12/confusion-reigns-in-calculating-methane-emissions/

[13] Satellite Data Shows U.S. Methane ‘Hot Spot’ Bigger than Expected — https://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/october/satellite-data-shows-us-methane-hot-spot-bigger-than-expected/

[14] After Aliso — https://laist.com/projects/2019/after-aliso/

[15] Aliso Canyon _ ARB Updated Emissions Report Oct 21 2016 — https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/research/aliso_canyon/aliso_canyon_methane_emissions-arb_final.pdf?_ga=2.253195850.2110388889.1582040467-1618562500.1582040467

[16] Ohio Well Blowout — Supplementation Information — https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/suppl/2019/12/10/1908712116.DCSupplemental/pnas.1908712116.sapp.pdf

[17] Satellite observations reveal extreme methane leakage from a natural gas well blowout — https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337980063_Satellite_observations_reveal_extreme_methane_leakage_from_a_natural_gas_well_blowout

[18] East Texas gas well blowout causes evacuations on Christmas — https://www.arklatexhomepage.com/news/texas-news/east-texas-gas-well-blowout-cause-evacuations-on-christmas/

[19] The United States of oil and gas — https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/united-states-of-oil/

[20] Global Carbon Budget Estimates Global CO2 Emissions Still Rising in 2019 — https://futureearth.org/2019/12/03/globalcarbonbudget2019/. The 2020 Global Carbon Budget report further underscores the rising trend — https://essd.copernicus.org/articles/12/1561/2020/.

[21] Fuel Switching: An Essential Step Towards A Decarbonized Future — https://cleantechnica.com/2016/05/23/fuel-switching-essential-step-towards-decarbonized-future/

[22] Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth: Why Gas Is Not Clean, Cheap, or Necessary — http://priceofoil.org/2019/05/30/gas-is-not-a-bridge-fuel/

Stephen Metts is a GIS analyst and instructor based in New York State. His research interests covered in this article include shale gas development and infrastructure, climate science, GHG emission data and energy politics.

GIS Analyst & Instructor | Shale Gas Impacts, Environmental Justice & Climate Change Issues

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