Quantcast
Energy

Fracking in Bakken Oilfield Largely Responsible for Global Rise in Ethane

The Bakken shale oilfield is largely responsible for most of a mysterious global rise in atmospheric ethane—a pollutant that can harm human health and heat the atmosphere further—peer-reviewed research published last week reveals.

The Bakken, which stretches from North Dakota and Montana into Canada, has made headlines over the past decade for its sudden drilling boom (and an equally sudden job market bust as oil prices have plunged over the past year).

Temporary housing and road constructed for oil and gas workers in Watford City, North Dakota. Photo credit: Chris Boyer / Kestrel Aerial Services, Inc. / Flickr

But while the drilling boom made North Dakota the nation's second largest oil-producing state, the amount of hydrocarbons leaking and being deliberately vented from the oil field may have been enough to alter the composition of the Earth's atmosphere slightly, reversing a long-running decline in ethane levels worldwide.

The Bakken alone is responsible for roughly two percent of the ethane emitted into the atmosphere worldwide, the newly published paper concludes.

“Two percent might not sound like a lot, but the emissions we observed in this single region are 10 to 100 times larger than reported in inventories,” Eric Kort, a University of Michigan assistant Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“They directly impact air quality across North America,” he said. “And they're sufficient to explain much of the global shift in ethane concentrations.”

Ethane is the second-most common hydrocarbon in the atmosphere and helps form ozone, a gas that at ground-level is usually called smog, the notorious haze that can cause people breathing problems and damage crops.

Smog has long been associated with fracking due to emissions of other pollutants—volatile organic compounds or VOCs—part of the reason that remote areas of Utah have recently suffered from a suffocating blanket of smog at levels higher than those found on summer day in freeway-clogged Los Angeles. But the role of ethane in smog problems is far less widely discussed.

Ethane also contributes to climate change in three ways: as a greenhouse gas itself (though it's extremely short-lived in the atmosphere so these effects are relatively fleeting), by extending the lifespan of the powerful greenhouse gas methane (because it consumes compounds that help break methane down) and because it helps to form smog, which the researchers described as “the third-largest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide and methane.”

It turns out that gas from the Bakken is unusually rich in ethane—sometimes representing as much as half of the natural gas produced from the shale, whereas natural gas is commonly made of roughly 90 percent methane, the scientists concluded.

On 12 days in May 2014, the researchers flew a small twin-engine airplane, a kind commonly used by skydivers, over the Bakken oil field, measuring the composition of the atmosphere in the region.

Scientists from the University of Michigan, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University, Stanford University and Harvard University all contributed to the newly published research, which was funded primarily by NOAA and NASA.

“We were interested in understanding the atmospheric impacts of some of these oil and gas fields in the U.S.—particularly oil and gas fields that had a lot of expansion of activities in the last decade,” Kort told the Washington Post.

The team measured for methane, carbon dioxide, ozone and a variety of other substances.

But it was the ethane findings that took them by surprise. The Bakken oilfield was emitting about 250,000 tons of ethane per year.

“We did not expect a single oil field to affect global levels of this gas,” said co-author Colm Sweeney, a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA.

From 1984 to 2009, levels of ethane in the air we all breathe had been dropping and scientists had concluded that was likely because refineries and oil fields were venting less natural gas and had made some progress at plugging leaks. But in 2010, a research station in Europe first noticed that ethane levels had spiked—and since that year, levels have been rising rather than falling.

“These findings not only solve an atmospheric mystery—where that extra ethane was coming from—they also help us understand how regional activities sometimes have global impacts,” Sweeney said, adding that other shale oil fields like the Eagle Ford and Permian basins in Texas might also be contributing to the reversal.

Other scientists confirmed that interpretation of the data. “They’ve basically shown here that a single shale can account for most of the ethane increase that you’ve seen in the past year,” Christian Frankenberg, an environmental science and engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology and a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Independent.

While the researchers largely focused on what they called “the disproportionate role played by the Bakken region, which represented only 2 percent of shale gas production in the U.S. in May 2014 and yet emitted 1-3 percent of total global ethane emissions,” they also pointed out that other research had reported higher levels of ethane near other shale gas plays, like the Marcellus Shale in the eastern U.S.

In part, the paper demonstrates some of the unexpected impacts that the fracking rush has had on the atmosphere, raising questions about the ability of regulators to police an industry whose impacts continue to surprise scientists over a decade into the shale rush.

“Much attention has focused on fugitive methane emissions from shale gas,” the researchers concluded. “This work demonstrates that we must also consider the impact of fugitive ethane emissions, [especially in areas like the Bakken].”

For years, environmentalists have called attention to the difficulties of regulating an industry whose impacts are not fully understood.

“The rapid scale of fracking has outpaced the scientific information we have on fracking,” analyst Pallavi Phartiyal of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists said in 2013 “and the regulatory response we have on unconventional oil and gas development.”

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

‘Apocalyptic’ Inferno Engulfs Canadian Tar Sands City

Major Milestone: More than 100,000 MW Worth of Coal-Fired Power Plants Retired

Bill McKibben: It’s Time to Turn Up the Heat on Those Who Are Wrecking Planet Earth

Interactive Map Shows What Powers the World

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
The Vanderford glacier in East Antarctica is one of four that is beginning to melt, according to NASA. Angela Wylie / Fairfax Media / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Melting Discovered in East Antarctic Region Holding Ice 'Equivalent to Four Greenlands'

Ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica have been melting at alarming rates in recent years, but at least the glaciers of East Antarctica were believed to be relatively stable. Until now. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists have discovered that glaciers covering one-eighth of Antarctica's eastern coast have lost ice in the past 10 years. If the region keeps melting, it has enough ice in its drainage basins to add 28 meters (approximately 92 feet) to global sea level rise, BBC News reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
In 2018, the Arctic region had the second-lowest overall sea-ice coverage on record. NOAAPMEL / YouTube

The Past 5 Years Were the Arctic's Warmest on Record

The Arctic is still warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth, and the region's air temperatures in the past five years between 2014-2018 have exceeded all previous records since 1900, according to a peer-reviewed report released by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Tuesday.

The agency's 13th annual Arctic Report Card also concluded that 2018 was second only to 2016 in terms of the region's overall warmth.

Keep reading... Show less
Science
Partial solar eclipse. ndersbknudsen, CC BY 2.0

3 Key Dangers of Solar Geoengineering and Why Some Critics Urge a Global Ban

By Justin Mikulka

A Harvard research team recently announced plans to perform early tests to shoot sunlight-reflecting particles into the high atmosphere to slow or reverse global warming.

These research efforts, which could take shape as soon as the first half of 2019, fall under the banner of a geoengineering technology known as solar radiation management, which is sometimes called "sun dimming."

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Even an increase of 2°C would cause significant sea level rise. pxhere

Report: Current Climate Policies Will Warm the World by 3.3˚C

This past October, a widely disseminated United Nations report warned that far-reaching and significant climate impacts will already occur at 1.5˚C of warming by 2100.

But in a study released Tuesday, researchers determined that the current climate polices of governments around the world will push Earth towards 3.3˚C of warming. That's more than two times the aspirational 1.5˚C target adopted by nearly 200 nations under the 2015 Paris agreement.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
garett_mosher / iStock / Getty Images

McDonald's to Reduce Antibiotics Use in Beef

In a significant win in the fight to save antibiotics, McDonald's—the largest and most iconic burger chain on the planet—announced Tuesday that it will address the use of antibiotics in its international supply chain for beef by 2021.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Protesters clash with riot police on Foch avenue next to the Place de l'Etoile, setting cars ablaze during a Yellow Vest protest on Dec. 1 in Paris. Etienne De Malglaive / Getty Images

The Lesson From a Burning Paris: We Can’t Tax Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis

By Wenonah Hauter

The images from the streets of Paris over the past weeks are stark and poignant: thousands of angry protesters, largely representing the struggling French working class, resorting to mass civil unrest to express fear and frustration over a proposed new gas tax. For the moment, the protests have been successful. French President Emmanuel Macron backed off the new tax proposal, at least for six months. The popular uprising won, seemingly at the expense of the global fight against climate change and the future wellbeing of our planet.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Rainbow Mountains in Vinicuna, Perú. Megan Lough / UI International Programs / CC BY-ND 2.0

7 Reasons Why #Mountains Matter

December 11 is International Mountain Day, an annual occasion designated by the United Nations to celebrate Earth's precious mountains.

Mountains aren't just a sight to behold—they cover 22 percent of the planet's land surface and provide habitat for plants, animals and about 1 billion human beings. The vital landforms also supply critical resources such as fresh water, food and even renewable energy.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Tetra Images / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Don’t Stress About What Kind of Christmas Tree to Buy, but Reuse Artificial Trees and Compost Natural Ones

By Bert Cregg

Environmentally conscious consumers often ask me whether a real Christmas tree or an artificial one is the more sustainable choice. As a horticulture and forestry researcher, I know this question is also a concern for the Christmas tree industry, which is wary of losing market share to artificial trees.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!