Conversation with Bob Howarth: Cornell Climate Change, Methane Expert Formed Opinion After Research

Cornell University professor Robert Howarth has fanned the flames about fracking...

Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, examines maps of coastal waterways (Robert Barker/University Photography)
Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, examines maps of coastal waterways (Robert Barker/University Photography)

By Andrew Casler via The Ithaca Journal, 1/31/14

As controversy rages over high-volume hydraulic fracturing and climate change, Cornell University professor Robert Howarth has fanned the flames.

Howarth, 61, of Trumansburg, was the lead author of a 2011 study that was the first to explore natural gas leaks, chiefly made up of methane, and their impacts on climate change.

Howarth’s study found that methane leakage from fracking was speeding climate change quicker than previously estimated. The study questioned the viability of natural gas as a clean fuel that could bridge the gap toward sustainable energy sources, and it added a new dimension to the debate over fracking. Howarth’s work drew heavy fire from the oil-and-gas industry, and praise from environmental activists.

QUESTION: Your 2011 study brought on national media coverage and shook the notion that natural gas was clean fuel. What new information did it discover?

ANSWER: Our research challenges the assumption that natural gas is a bridge fuel. That’s the bottom line. Government, industry and even some of the large environmental organizations have promoted it that way. The argument was, “Well sure, there’s water quality issues, but suck that up and live with it. We need to do something about global warming, and this is a way for society to move forward.” Our research has certainly challenged that, but of course, not everyone agrees with our research.

Q: What were the findings?

A: First, the quality of data that are publicly available on methane emissions from shale gas were astronomically bad at that point. ... There’s a need for much higher-quality data obtained by independent scientists not under the thumb of industry. Given the information we had, we also said that methane emissions were more than sufficient to overcome any benefit from low-carbon-dioxide emissions of burning natural gas. Conventional natural gas is a pretty horrendous fuel, but shale gas is worse — higher methane emissions.

Q: How well have your findings held up since 2011?

A: The first year after our paper came out, higher-quality data were not available. ... As the information has come out, we have these new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studies and other papers (supporting our findings and showing high methane emissions).

Q: How does methane affect climate change?

A: Methane has a resonance time in the atmosphere of just a little bit over 12 years. When it’s in the atmosphere, it has a warming aspect that’s more than 100-fold of carbon dioxide. ... We’re on a path to warm (the Earth) by 1½ degrees 15 to 18 years from now, and 2 degrees within 35 to 40 years from now.

At those temperatures, 1½ to 2 degrees Celsius, there’s a very real risk of having a tipping point in the climate system, and a risk of having runaway feedbacks which would make it almost impossible to control global warming.

Q: What difference does a few degrees Celsius make?

A: People tend to think of global warming as a gradual phenomenon, and certainly, we’re seeing some more extreme weather events and increasing the likelihood of droughts and floods and things like that. The public has become increasingly aware that those are issues, but I think what they don’t realize is that the ferocity of that abnormal weather will become much greater as we move forward over this century.

Q: How can fracking be worse for climate change than traditional natural gas extraction?

A: If you look at conventional natural gas, there’s some leakage at the well site, as wells are developed, and there’s routine leakage (with transporting gas). ... We argue that shale gas has a larger leakage. At the time a shale gas well is hydraulically fractured, the flow-back fluid comes to the surface, and after that, there’s essentially a free flow of methane during that time period vented into the atmosphere. ... Even if we get shale gas methane emissions to the level of conventional natural gas, those emissions are still too high. It’s unacceptable. We have to control methane emissions over this critical period of the next few decades.

Q: How do you reconcile scientific objectivity in your work against being an outspoken critic of fracking?

A: When I started our research on the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas, I was not anti-fracking. I was skeptical of the claims made by industry that it was a green, bridge fuel. I responded to that inherent skepticism I have by looking for the scientific literature that might have supported their claims. It was nonexistent, so we took it on as a research project.

As a result of the research we have done, and the research that others have done, and some of what I’m seeing in local air effects, and very short-term production of these wells and how quickly they (stop producing), it is true that I am definitely against hydraulic fracturing. I think that we should get rid of it, but that’s a result of the science I and others have done. It wasn’t my starting point, and we certainly didn’t bias our science.

Q: In lieu of natural gas, what energy sources do you think are most promising for providing eco-friendly power?

A: I’m a believer that we can do it with solar energy, wind energy and hydro energy, including tide and wave energy. ... Forty percent of the power for New York (could) come from offshore wind; 20 percent from onshore wind and solar panels. To give a concrete example, I now own an electric car and generate its power from sun and wind, so we’re 100 percent renewable for that driving. ... By going to those sorts of technologies, which weren’t available 10 years ago but are now and they’re cost-effective, I think we could get rid of fossil fuels pretty quickly if we wanted to, and we need to if we’re serious about global warming.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.