Methane Pollution from Fracking May be Underestimated

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas may be responsible more methane gas air pollution than originally thought.

According to a Christian Science Monitor report on a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a fracking well near Boulder, Colo., is allowing at least 4 percent of its “gross annual production” to escape into the air. The contents of this escaping gas are mostly methane gas. Previous estimates suggested less than 2 percent (1.6) of a well’s gas output was released into the air.

Residents living closest to active fracking wells already have plenty of reason to fear the threat of methane gas contamination, but through groundwater contamination. The study released this week indicates there is fresh reason to worry and should give anti-fracking activists more ammunition for their argument the gas exploration process is dangerous.

Scads of previous reports have noted the likelihood of a property owner experiencing methane gas contamination of their water wells if it’s located within about a mile of an active well. Contamination for some property owners has reached the point where water is unusable and some have can light their tap water on fire.

NOAA said it must conduct testing at other fracking wells outside the Boulder location to determine if this is an isolated incident of escaping gas or if this is standard at all or most wells. The study believes average gas escape rates at fracking wells could range from 2.3 percent to 7.7 percent, according to the report.

Fracking has been conducted in Colorado for years, long before a boom in the industry led to a spate of wells to be opened in the Mid Atlantic region. Recent Environmental Protection Agency testing on fracking wells near another Colorado town was the first federal test to link fracking drilling to water contamination.

The report notes that methane gas contamination is far more dangerous than other types of air pollution and reducing methane output overall, especially at fracking wells, could reduce the impact greenhouse gases have on global climate change. Excessive methane gas contamination will result in smog and other harmful effects.

For the study, researchers at NOAA and University of Colorado-Boulder conducted field tests near active fracking field in Colorado. They collected air samples at a tower near Denver and via a specially-outfitted car which toured areas closest to the wells monitored in the study. The contents of the air collected by the tower were methane-rich and researchers were able to identify the air as a byproduct of the nearby fracking drilling. More conventional means of drilling do not result in such a massive and widespread release of methane gas and other Volatile Organic Compounds.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to work on drafting fracking regulations as the natural gas industry looks to take advantage of previously untapped resources and have made every attempt to do so in the absence of much federal, state or local rules. The EPA has delayed the release of those regulations numerous times, but this report from Christian Science Monitor indicates the agency is expected to release guidelines on capturing escaping gas at fracking wells by April.

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