Research: Fracking The Air

January 28 2013, 12:30 PM

Is fracking safe? When it comes to the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, that's the question on peoples' minds. Governor Hickenlooper has long suggested that the answer to that question is yes. But it never hurts to have more information, and thanks to unexpected additional tax revenue from 2012, the governor is suggesting the state spend about $1 million to study the impact the oil and gas extraction procedure has on air quality along the Front Range. In Beneath the Surface, 5280 examined many of the aspects surrounding the complicated, conroversial procedure known as fracking. Here, a look at a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study which also examined the effects fracking has on air quality. 

The researchers: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

What they studied: Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas drilling in northeastern Colorado. 

What they found: Natural gas extraction leaks twice as much methane—about four percent of the total extracted—into the atmosphere as previously estimated by the EPA. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 100 years. Other emissions, including the carcinogen benzene, are also likely being leaked at higher-than-expected rates.

Why it matters: Although natural gas may burn cleaner, the effect is diminished if methane and other toxins are escaping into the atmosphere during its extraction and processing.  

The caveat: Most of the information was collected in 2008. Since that time, Colorado has imposed stricter air emissions rules (84 percent of wells that have been hydraulically fractured since April 2012 have undergone “green completions” to reduce the amount of methane leaked). By 2015, the EPA will enforce a similar rule nationally, which is expected to save the industry $11 million to $19 million that year in natural gas previously “lost” to the atmosphere. 

Bonus: Listen to 5280 assistant editor Chris Outcalt talk fracking with the Denver Diatribe crew. 

Follow assistant editor Chris Outcalt on Twitter at @chrisoutcalt