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These are my prepared remarks for a speech I gave at the Boston stop of the People’s Climate March tour, “Building a Movement of Movements: Towards the People’s Climate March in NYC.”
Only a few years ago, that sentence would have sounded strange, even to me, because the fight against fracking has its roots in another place.
Those who oppose natural gas extraction via fracking first came together because we didn’t want to be poisoned.
In New York state, we sought to halt fracking before it started because of what we saw across the border in the gaslands of Pennsylvania: families with nose bleeds and rashes. Sick pets. Horses and livestock with mysterious ailments. Devastated landscapes
We had concerns about exploding pipelines, leaking waste pits and about our children’s school buses sharing icy roads with tanker trucks hauling toxic fracking fluid.
Most of all, we came together to protect our drinking water, and, now that the science is beginning catch up to the speed at which fracking is rolling across the nation, an ever-expanding collection of empirical data shows that our concerns were well founded.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the shale gas boom.
It turns out that the same unfixable engineering problem that sets the table for contaminating our water also contaminates the atmosphere with climate-killing methane.
The problem is that fracked wells are fragile wells. Too often, they leak. The brutal actions of fracking itself, which uses a slurry of highly pressurized water, chemicals and sand as a club to shatter the shale in order to free the oil or gas—can sometimes deform or crack the cement gasket around the wellbore. That’s how fracked wells can lose their integrity. That’s how they leak. And once they start leaking, you can’t turn them off.
That leakage can include natural gas itself—methane—which wafts from the wellhead, or from the compressor station, or from pipelines and flarestacks, into our atmosphere.
In short, each wellhead is an inextinguishable methane cigarette in the Earth. And there are no non-smoking sections.
This is a big problem for the climate because methane is highly potent greenhouse gas—86 times more powerful at trapping heat over a 20-year period than its more famous big brother, carbon dioxide. The only good news about methane is that it doesn’t last as long as its sibling. It lives fast and dies young. At the end of 20 years, methane is pretty much gone.
The bad news is that it’s so late in the climate change story that we don’t have much longer than twenty years to alter the outcome of the narrative. Hence, methane matters. It matters a lot.
Methane matters when it creates giant sinkholes in Siberia. Methane matters when it wafts up from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. And methane matters when it leaks from hundreds of thousands of gas and oil wells.
Hence, a protracted debate about whether burning natural gas via fracking is incrementally worse for the climate or incrementally better for the climate than burning coal is like arguing whether it’s more or less harmful to drink a six-pack of beer every night for 40 years or six shots of whiskey.
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