US shale gas key to rapid rise in methane levels, TDs hear

Fracked gas has greater emissions footprint than coal, Oireachtas committee hears

A gas flare at a fracking site near Mentone in Texas. Photograph: Bronte Wittpenn/Bloomberg

A gas flare at a fracking site near Mentone in Texas. Photograph: Bronte Wittpenn/Bloomberg


Methane levels have been rising rapidly over the past decade and shale gas generated in the United States was the single largest generator of this greenhouse gas, accounting for a third of the increase in global emissions from all sources, the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action has heard.

Prof Robert Howarth of Cornell University briefed TDs and senators on Wednesday about the environmental impact of Ireland commencing imports from the US of shale gas, which is extracted through hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as fracking.

Natural gas generated by fracking had a greater emissions footprint than coal, he said, highlighting the polluting effect of Ireland importing the gas from the US to Ireland and processing it at a terminal in the Shannon estuary.

Speaking via video link, Prof Howarth said there was a glut of shale gas in the US due to overproduction, which was a factor in the push to export it. “If Ireland was to import gas from the US, it would be largely shale gas; an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas compared to CO2.”

The committee is evaluating the potential impact of fracked gas imports on Ireland’s climate goals in the wake of the Government’s decision to renew the listing of the proposed Shannon liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on a list of projects of common interest at European Union level.

Projects are listed with a view to maintaining energy security in Europe and have access to special funding from €5.35 billion funding pot and backing by way of fast-track planning and regulatory permits.

The New Fortress Energy project was listed in spite of Ireland banning fracking for shale gas on environmental and health grounds.

Energy security review

Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton has indicated since that the Government would not allow the terminal proceed until a review of Irish energy security had been completed.

Prof Howarth outlined how methane is emitted into the atmosphere by way of leaks and emissions at well sites, during processing, transportation and storage.

He said the US had known about the effects of climate change for a long time but the fossil fuel industry had “confused policymakers” by intensive lobbying which delayed the response. The view that natural gas is a transition fuel as the world decarbonises “is born out of that”, he said.

Dr Paul Deane of the MaREI energy institute in UCC said it was not entirely established that LNG infrastructure was required in Ireland. Their modelling of gas supply issues in Europe showed that if supply from Russia was interrupted for a time, the lights would stay on. Natural gas could move easily to Ireland via the UK. “The system appears to be very resilient,” he added.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on climate action Timmy Dooley said there was clearly a need for an independent report on whether an LNG terminal was needed “with fracked gas or not”.

Prof Barry McMullin of DCU said a complete rebuilding of the Irish energy system around renewable energy was required.

Deployment of additional fossil fuel infrastructure “will not help us to rapidly decarbonise and will most likely hinder an effective response” to climate change, he said.