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MIT: The Facts On Fracking Methane Emissions


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

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Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Nov 30, 2012

Methane emissions wise rhe report is valid. It could even be said that the methane emissions and CO2 emissions are lower than typical oil field extraction where natural gas is simply flared off. I would have to say that the oil and gas recovery via fracking is a mixed blessing at best. At the very least; it poses a considerable obstacle to moving beyond petoleum based fuels for transportation and electrical production. I am more than a little concerned that the glib pursuit of cheap fossil fuels will impede rhe achievement of neccessary targets to mitigate a Climate Change Tipping Point though.

Ronald Weedbaum's picture
Ronald Weedbaum on Nov 30, 2012

This comment is accurate in some ways but the combination of your comment and your username show the fundamental problem. If we really want energy4all but also want to reduce GHG footprint and other pollution, then we must do shale gas.  It's a no-brainer. If you want to stop using fossil fuels in the next 5 years or even the next 30 years then you will not have energy4all.  There would be energy4thewealthyonly.



Ronald Weedbaum's picture
Ronald Weedbaum on Nov 30, 2012

This report is important but there have been at least 6 other reports from reputable institutions that show virtually the same thing. They have received approximately 1/100 of the attention that the Howarth et al travesty received that suggested that shale gas was worse than coal for GHG emissions. Howarth is a coastal ecologist who knows little to nothing about the oil and gas industry but is a vocal anti-fracking activist. His paper received a front page 20+ paragraph story in the NYT that I don't believe mentioned his anti-fracking activism but instead treated him as a serious scientist despite glaring errors in the paper. The people from MIT know what they are doing and what they are talking about and therefore are unlikely to get much attention from the big news outlets. I hope I'm wrong!

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Nov 30, 2012

This post and the MIT work really do not "prove" or demonstrat anything except that shale gas wells produce more fugitive emissions from above ground operations as compared to traditional extraction wells. There's a much bigger picture to look at and that is the total fugitive emissions from the entire well field and over the course of the well from start of drilling and through operations. Fractured shale gas wells increase the potential for fugitive emissions from the surface, unplugged abandoned wells, etc due to rogue fractures and interception of well fractures with natural rock fractures. This gas doesn't go back up into the well and into the pipeline, but directly from the formation, should that the pathways of least resistance. A "bottom up" approach to emissions accounting would not include these emissions.

Now onto the work of Francis O’Sullivan  and Sergey Paltsev of MIT Energy Initiative. This group seems to be another external shale gas research organization setup like those of University of Buffalo and University of Texas. Neither authors represent MIT through its engineering or science departments. The Energy Initiative use the MIT brand to lend creadence to published papers so business news outlets and bloggers can say: "hey, here's a study from MIT and it says such and such so it must be right because its M freaking IT." At least Buffalo had the guts to give its shale gas institute the boot this month after finally realizing it was a potemkin village for science and engineering research.

Jane Ward's picture
Jane Ward on Dec 3, 2012

This site and your bio indicate this is a mouthpiece for promotion of the fossil fuels industry. Certainly you have every right to voice your opinion but your credibility is a concern when you make a statement like this:

"[C]ounterfactual depictions of hydraulic fracturing emissions [presumably referring to the Cornell Howarth, Ingraffea study] are an attempt to undermine support for the shale energy resources and extraction technologies that have combined to launch a game-changing energy revolution."

Excuse me, I'm no expert on this subject but as a reader of English, this sounds like an attenpt to undermine Howarth and his team. How do you know the Cornell team are attempting to "undermine" support for the shale gas industry? Don't you know they would love it if shale gas development in its full A-Z lifecycle production were a relatively safe process? They challenged fellow scientists to improve on their data, offering repeated caveats that their own data was early and incomplete, a signal of possible danger ahead, and asked for scientists like the MIT team to join them by bringing their data to the table as we are all on the same side. If they sound like "anti-fracking activists" they might have reasonable grounds (lots of other detriments in shale gas drilling beyond the methane problem such as air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, massive increase in diesel truck traffic clogging narrow roads in small rural towns with associated carcinogenic benzene-laden diesel exhaust pollution, what to do with flowback waste, esp low-level radioactive contents -- no human health or evenvironmental studies ever done by government agencies, altho EPA study due out soon -- all playing havoc on the rural recreational economy and property values -- plus that irksome question of radon contained in the gas as it goes into American kitchens). But on the score of methane leaks in shale gas production, Howarth and his Cornell team are decidely humble.

The potential financial motivation in shale gas drilling and leasing might be making API and EID a bit defensive -- is this one reason you tend to disparage and undermine Mr Howarth and his team? I hope this motivation is not the case. True scientists don't disparage each other. Your credibility goes right down the drain when you do this. (By the way, was the MIT study peer-reviewed? Link?)

Seems to me (again, no expert, just an average citizen) the major reasons to join together, forget the money motive, stop disparaging those who, in good faith, question the safety of further fossil fuel development and burning (including tar sands oil) are: 1) methane is a known climate menace (and so is CO2 at slightly less intensity) and we saw their likely exacerbating effects in Superstorm Sandy, and (2) methane and CO2 are invisible.

This is not sour grapes. Get more science if you want but drop the snide remarks.

Ronald Weedbaum's picture
Ronald Weedbaum on Dec 3, 2012

This post is an example of how anti-fracking groups are taking pages out of the global warming denier and creationist handbooks. First, say that nothing can be "proved" in science.

Then throw out some wild accusations that sound good to the uninformed such as "Fractured shale gas wells increase the potential for fugitive emissions from the surface, unplugged abandoned wells, etc due to rogue fractures and interception of well fractures with natural rock fractures" None of these are true. Show me one case of an unplugged abandoned well that was a source for upward gas flow from a shale gas well. This is speculative and has no basis in fact. It simply hasn't happened. Similarly, show me a single case of a rogue fracture reaching the surface. Just one example out of the tens of thousands of shale gas wells that have been drilled would suffice. And along those lines, show me a single example of a shale gas well penetrating a natural fracture or set of fractures that was then a conduit for upward gas migration to hte surface. You can't because there are none. The MIT study is one of half a dozen from repuatbale institutions and scientists that came to basically the same conclusion.

Finally, you go for the ad hominem attacks.  Discuss the merits of the science. If you want to go down that road, the one paper that suggests that GHG emissions from shale gas are worse than coal written by Howarth et al was funded by the Park Foundation which also funded Gasland, and many other anti-shale gas groups. They are dedicated to stopping shale gas development around Ithaca NY where they are based.  Howarth and his co-authors are anti-shale gas activisits who are apparently willing to sacrifice their scientific integrity to stop shale gas development around Ithaca.  I'd prefer to just stick to the science though and on the scientific points shale gas is far superior to coal and oil on a per unit of energy basis.

I'll go on to say that intentionally disnforming on this issue is immoral as global warming is real and we need to know the facts so we take the right course of action. I would say that Howarth et al., who i believe were intentionally disinforming on this issue, are no better and perhaps worse in some ways than James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh or any of the big name global warming deniers. This isn't a game.

Ronald Weedbaum's picture
Ronald Weedbaum on Dec 3, 2012

Global warming is real. Switching from coal burning to shale gas has actually helped us pretty radically reduce our GHG emissions. No other single thing we have done in the last decade has helped to reduce emissions more. What Howarth et al did was intentionally disinform and give a false impression that shale gas was worse than coal. Although there were several less than straightforward assumptions in the paper, none was more glaring that this - they stopped their analysis prior to combustion! the whole point of gas and coal is to burn them.  So they did their alleged "life cycle analysis" but left out the part of the equation where >95% of the emissions come from!  If they had included combustion, their analysis would have showed that shale gas was cleaner than coal (even with all of their other deeply flawed assumptions). This trick was not pointed out by the NYT or most others who covered the paper. This was, of course, the likely intention of Howarth et al. Gas burns about twice as clean as coal from a GHG emissions perspective and about 1000 times cleaner from a SO2, mercury, and particulate matter perspective. So switching from coal to gas for power generation leads to a much cleaner environment with much lower GHG emissions.


Kim Feil's picture
Kim Feil on Dec 3, 2012

Not even in highly densely populated areas in FT Worth and Arlington TX do they use available technology to contain methane. The TCEQ doesn't even screen for methane on their suma canisters. During the topflow flowback stage (before Green Completions equipment is added), they are indirectly venting hydrocarbons and frack water chemical ladened flowback into OPEN hatch flowback tanks.  They should be using gas buster equipment that is pressurized and VENTLESS!  Even the EPA missed this on their last round of regs to control GHG’s.  They also have a bad habit of letting the flowback sit and fester h2s like stuff for months until they get the pipeline connected to the site. This practice of not flowing back right away sickened Jean Stephens in her own parking lot at the Lynn Smith Chesapeake drill site last March in Arlington TX. Chesapeake is planning another late flowback near the Cowboy Stadium any day now. I live, breathe, and blog in BarnettShaleHell...I need some industry people to defend why they allow venting in open hatch flowback tanks. I need MIT to acknowledge they even studied top flow stage flowback.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Dec 3, 2012

I'd reply with something substantial, but it's a waste to respond to anonymous commentors; they usually are paid flacks working for Heartland, PERC, EDF or API or god forbid, a junior petroleum geologist trolling the Internet on his/her lunch hour . Show some guts and comment using your full name. By the way, most people reading this and many other blogs are pretty well informed - so there really isn't much persuasion going on - just information exchange and the occasional scientific debate.


Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Jan 10, 2013

You will be interested in reading the latest preliminary findings about rates of leakage of methane from fracking well fields:



Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Jan 10, 2013

I read the O'Sullivan and Paltsev paper, including all 46 pages of the supplemental information. It seemed rather biased to me, in approach and in specific wording. The focus on economics was interesting, but the conclusion contradicted the facts. Significant leakage was admitted, and then they said that leakage was insignificant. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, of course, and leakage of 0.5% to 0.9% is significant. Note that actual leakage is reported to be much higher in several other research efforts. Note also that rogue leaks may exsist and not have been found, but they may be now that more peopl will have methane detection equipment. Note that the MIT Energy Initiative backed the O'Sullivan and Paltsev research, and then look at the list of funders of the MIT EI -- it's a roll call of the world's fossil fuel energy industry. That's not exactly "ad hominem" but more like "follow the money" -- only a fool would completely ignore such blatant invitation to bias. If a DOE person were sleeping with a wind farm company and they got the contract, I'm sure people wouldn't ignore it.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on Jan 10, 2013

Did they really stop short of combustion? I thought that was the whole point. Anyway, those who think methane is a Godsend like to omit the parts about the economic downturn and the very mild winter of 2011-12 as partial causes for the reduction in US estimated greenhouse gas emissions, and also that leakage from fracking is not included in said estimates.

Jim Adams's picture
Jim Adams on Jan 20, 2013

Mark -- would you follow up on the Nature link which the commenter provided.  Also, would you google "fracking, methane" and follow various links which you know have believibility equal to or greater than the Nature article.  

Thanks, jim

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