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A new MIT study shows that the extraction of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing emits only a fraction more methane into the air than conventional gas drilling:

"Taking actual field practice into account, we estimate that in 2010 the total fugitive (greenhouse gas) emissions from US shale gas-related hydraulic fracturing amounted to 216 (gigagrams of methane). This represents 3.6% of the estimated 6002 (gigagrams of methane) of fugitive emissions from all natural gas production-related sources in that year … Thus under a goal of GHG reduction it is clear that increased efforts must be made to reduce fugitive losses from this system. However, it is also clear is that the production of shale gas and specifically, the associated hydraulic fracturing operations have not materially altered the total GHG emissions from the natural gas sector."

The finding is important because of the ongoing energy revolution due to shale and hydraulic fracturing, and because some opponents of shale natural gas and/or fracking claim its methane emissions are dramatically higher than those that occur during conventional natural gas drilling. Not so.

According to E&E News, MIT researchers looked at data from each of the approximately 4,000 wells that were drilled in 2010. They studied methane emissions from the time a well is first fracked to the ninth day of its life. Francis O’Sullivan, study co-author and executive director of the Energy Sustainability Challenge Program at the MIT Energy Initiative:

"It is incorrect to suggest that shale gas-related hydraulic fracturing has substantially altered the overall level of fugitive emissions from the natural gas system."

Bottom line: While methane emissions from all types of natural gas drilling are important – and energy companies are continuing their work to lower them – counterfactual depictions of hydraulic fracturing emissions are an attempt to undermine support for the shale energy resources and extraction technologies that have combined to launch a game-changing energy revolution, described by Stan Barton in post for Forbes:

"Throughout our history, the best spurts of economic prosperity have developed from some revolutionary impetus, most recently the prosperity created by the Internet. There are few influences that can be game-changing for a system the size of the U.S. economy, but the recent discovery that the United States has an abundance of natural gas provides the potential for that impetus. … A policy to take advantage of the natural gas abundance will have a “New Deal” type influence on infrastructure construction and manufacturing, and it will provide cheap energy to fuel growth in many sectors."

Shale energy – both natural gas and oil – is a blessing. Because of hydraulic fracturing, it’s plentiful, reliable and affordable, and it is reshaping the U.S. and global energy picture. At the same time, increased use of natural gas has helped drop U.S. emissions of CO2 to a 20-year low.

Meanwhile, industry is working to make shale development safer and cleaner. Responsible energy development is happening with an eye on protecting America’s environmental treasures. PBS captured the fact in a piece earlier this year from Utah that included this from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:

“It is my view that protecting the environment and developing oil and gas are not mutually exclusive – and those that say they are, are providing a false choice.”

As more Americans engage in the energy conversation, it’s important that the discussion have a factual basis. The new MIT study helps strengthen that fact foundation.

Image: Shale Gas Drilling via Shutterstock