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Fracking fingered as source of methane spikes, cows off the hook

All you Vegans out there, sorry to be a killjoy, but it’s not the cows after all that are making all the methane, it’s fracking. Cornell University this week provided a definitive method for testing what process has released methane, and what is responsible for the global spike in its presence in the atmosphere.

Just to be clear, we applaud and support vegans for their position on food, but have always suspected that blowing pressurized water underground was likely to be a major culprit in recent methane growth. Turns out it is.

There results were published in the August edition of Bio-geosciences, a journal of the European Geosciences Union. By measuring the weight of the carbon atoms involved in recent releases of methane, Cornell believes it has managed to isolate the source.

The research suggests that fracked methane has less carbon-13 relative to carbon-12 (denoting the weight of the carbon atom at the center of the methane molecule) than does methane from conventional natural gas and other fossil fuels such as coal. Comparing “old” record of methane production to fresher samples reveals a significant increase in carbon 12.

This carbon signature means that since the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing – commonly called fracking – shale gas has increased in its share of global natural gas production and has released more methane into the atmosphere, according to the paper’s author, Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell.

About two-thirds of all new gas production over the last decade has been shale gas produced in the United States and Canada. Atmospheric methane concentrations have been rising since 2008, the timing of which pointed to fracking as the likely source – but fracking companies have consistently denied any methane could possibly escape – but of course you can only measure that at the point of collection. What if it simply escapes across a wider area of fracked ground?

Methane from biological sources such as cows and wetlands have the wrong type of carbon in them, but despite this previous studies have concluded that biological sources are the cause of rising methane. That has been grabbed at by those keen to see less meat consumed and used as a rallying call for a strict vegan diet. While it has clear health benefits, far less methane is coming from this source that previously believed.

Atmospheric methane was on the rise coming up to 2000, but then levelled off. Since 2000 it has re-accelerated, and the timing was in keeping with rising fracking activity from 2008 to 2014.

Methane dissipate fairly quickly and if we stop putting it out there it is an easy win to slow global warming, especially since it is about 30 times worse than CO2 per molecule. Methane by some estimates makes up about 25% of the warming problem, and most research has gone into tackling CO2 as a priority. The renewables industry has been slow to put the blame on fracking, because this has been robustly denied by gas companies. Now it can join up the dots based on high caliber US research, not unsubstantiated claims and counter claims.

This research, which we are sure can be easily replicated, potentially provides all the evidence needed to ban fracking in places like Europe which has yet to commit to a flat out exploitation of this fossil fuel. It could even be used to support a ban on its import from the US, a country which has brazenly given in to it and even encouraged it. Currently the US exports LNG derived from fracked gas to China, the Far East and much of Latin America, and Europe is its next target. The environmental protection agency in the US will clearly rethink its position on fracking, once a there is not a pro-oil president in the White house and the EPA falls back into its core role – protecting people, not oil companies.

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