Methane: It's Not Just From Cows

With the fracking boom building, natural gas is touted as a clean energy source. But the hard truth is that the gas drilling sector has worsened air quality in many areas.

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With the fracking boom building, natural gas is touted as a clean energy source. But the hard truth is that the gas drilling sector—which includes the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking—has worsened air quality in many areas. In some parts of the country undergoing such a boom, air quality has fallen below levels the EPA determined to be safe.

Unfortunately, the growing problem is that the production, transmission and distribution of oil and natural gas emit large amounts of harmful pollutants into the air, often without any controls to protect the surrounding communities and our air. And those pollutants include methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide, which is also the primary component of natural gas itself.

This EnergyWire article points to research where scientists have estimated that anywhere between one to 10 percent of natural gas produced ends up leaking out into the air through a variety of channels. The article goes on to quote a source who says that the natural gas industry globally leaks “significantly less” than 10 percent of the methane it produces. While this might sound like a consolation to some, here is what Earthjustice senior associate attorney Tim Ballo had to say:

Imagine if the best we could say is that oil tankers leak “significantly less than 10 percent” of their cargo. We’d all be pretty upset. Methane is more than 20 times as potent at carbon dioxide, so whatever percent of the total production is leaking, it’s a big problem.

And we aren’t the only ones ringing the alarm bell. In early February the EPA said the oil and gas sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, behind only power plants, releasing 225 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011. More than a third of that came from methane, with the oil and gas sector responsible for 40 percent of total U.S. methane emissions.

In November Earthjustice joined a group of clean air advocates and went to court to protect and strengthen EPA rules (that our litigation brought about) that will limit air pollution from this industry and calling on the agency to restrict the sector’s methane and toxic air emissions.

Though these leaks amount to wasted profits for the natural gas industry, it’s clear the industry will clean up its act only if required by the EPA.  Through Earthjustice’s litigation we hope to get EPA to finally address the full picture of the harm caused by this air pollution, before it’s too late for our communities and our planet.


Raviya was a press secretary at Earthjustice in the Washington, D.C. office from 2008 to 2014, working on issues including federal rulemakings, energy efficiency laws and coal ash pollution.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.