Environmental Protection

Hidden Climate Change Caused by Shale Gas Boom

EIP Announces Hidden Climate Change Impact to Fracking Boom

The recent shale gas boom has led to climate change impact in more than 90 new industrial plants, which are projected to emit greenhouse gases equal to 21 coal-fired power plants.

Burning shale gas in power plants instead of coal reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but there is a hidden climate change impact to America’s fracking boom: the unleashing of a “tidal wave” of construction or expansion of more than 90 chemical, fertilizer, and petroleum plants that will release about as much greenhouse gas pollution as 21 large baseload coal-fired power plants, according to a major new report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

Since January 1, 2012, companies have proposed or already obtained 95 Clean Air Act permits authorizing a 91 million ton increase in greenhouse gas emissions for the construction and operation of new compressors, pipelines and other major facilities made possible by cheap shale gas. The climate implications of the new sites are considerable; for example, nitric acid units at fertilizer plants release large amounts of nitrous oxide, which has a global warming effect more than 300 times that of carbon dioxide. Proposed new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals will release about as much greenhouse gas as would a new coal plant.

The total of 91 million additional tons of GHG pollution does not include new emissions from proposed gas-fired power plants or the multitude of smaller wells, gas processing plants, compressor stations, and flares springing up across the U.S. in shale gas rich states like North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas. 

EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said: “It’s important that we understand the full climate change picture when it comes to America’s shale gas boom and the related tradeoffs. As natural gas replaces coal as the fuel of choice for electric power plants, greenhouse gas emissions from that sector will declined, since gas releases less than half as much carbon as coal per kilowatt of electricity generated. But the data suggest that declining CO2 emissions from the electric power sector will be partially offset by higher emissions from other industries cashing in on cheap and abundant supplies of oil and gas from shale deposits.”  

More than two thirds of the shale gas-powered expansion sites are located in the Gulf Coast States of Texas (43) and Louisiana (20), the heartland of the U.S. petrochemical industry. Other sites are located in the following 19 states (in order of the number of proposed or new plants): Oklahoma (5); Georgia (4); Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Oregon, Pennsylvania (2); and Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming (1).

Highlights of the report include the following:

Oil and gas sector.  Facilities that compress gas for transport through pipelines, remove liquids from dry gas, and process or store liquefied natural gas for export. Together, 39 new projects are expected to increase CO2 emissions by nearly 41 million tons annually, about as much as nine baseload coal plants. 

Chemical manufacturing. Greenhouse gas emissions from the chemical sector will increase by an estimated 45.8 million tons per year, as companies build or expand units that extract ethylene, propylene, methanol and other chemicals from shale gas liquids for use in manufacturing a wide variety of products. Low gas prices have also helped revive the U.S. fertilizer industry after years of flat growth, as gas is a critical to the manufacture of nitrogen based fertilizers.

Petroleum refineries. Expansions of petroleum refineries are expected to increase GHG emissions by 4.3 million tons per year, based on permits for new projects to add new capacity or to adapt existing units to handle shale oil or gas. U.S. refinery output reached peak levels of 6.8 billion barrels a year between 2010 and 2012, nearly 40 percent higher than the output in the early 1980s, when more than twice as many refineries were in operation. Much of the expansion in recent years will be for export of refined products that now account for nearly 15 percent of total U.S. output, or nearly twice the level just five years ago.

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