Fracked up: The Link between Plastic, Fossil Gas and Methane Pollution. Pt.I

In May, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Environmental Action Germany (DUH), and Food and Water Europe organized online conferences entitled “Fracking, Plastics, Methane Emissions and the Gas Lobby” to better explain the connection between them and climate crisis. The first of the two drew upon startling new satellite data explained by globally renowned methane and fracking expert, Prof. Robert Howarth from Cornell University. In his presentation, he detailed how the ongoing fuel switch from coal to gas has likely worsened the overall climate. Other speakers, including two Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), several environmental attorneys, and other fracking activists discussed continuing gas lobbying efforts to “greenwash” uninformed MEPs and the general public. Now available for streaming, the first webinar-debate provided a welcome space for an informed discussion around fossil gas policies, many of which ignore established science in favor of economic and political expediency—our L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews.

Natural Gas’ Dirty Nexus

The initial segment in the series highlighted the still widely unknown nexus between gas and plastics and it’s implications for the European Green Deal. With presentations reviewing how and why the gas and plastics industry remains so greenhouse gas intensive, Howarth also discussed the additional greenhouse gas footprint resulting from U.S. producers expanding liquid “natural” fossil gas (LNG) export infrastructure and trans-Atlantic markets. While analyzing holistically the entire lifecycle of plastics, as well as the upstream side of the industry, the panelists showed how fracking for plastics is both accelerating climate change.

The first speaker, MEP Jutta Paulus of the Greens/European Free Alliance group, discussed how unfortunately many Members of Parliament remained largely unaware of the dangers of methane. Much of the current understanding of gas, she revealed, is predicated upon the EU’s prior gas supply chain diversification initiative, itself stemming from attempts by Russia to achieve petrochemical and gas dominance throughout Europe. As a result, various new and planned LNG ports and diverse gas infrastructure are now in various stages of build-out, collectively ensuring diversity of supply. However, despite the increased understanding of the climate science, Paulus discussed how members are still convinced that fossil gas is “natural”, and therefore a safe bridge to either “green” hydrogen or renewables.

Methane Madness

Unquestionably, one of the webinar’s highlights was Prof. Howarth’s presentation which drew upon new international methane emissions data generated by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Copernicus Sentinel satellites—previously only estimated and now able to be quantified.

Howarth began by reminding that carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions alone can not guarantee that nations will meet their Paris climate targets. Given that methane is 120 times more potent than CO2 with a half-life a little over a decade, it’s impact maybe short-term, but it’s very powerful.

The new data from the ESA’s Copernicus Satellites reveals that fugitive methane emissions from fracking within North America (more than 90% of all shale-gas fracking is occurring either in Canada or the U.S.), specifically within the premier Permian Basin in Texas, are much higher than any previous government or industry estimates—roughly as large as the whole emissions of France and Germany combined according to Howarth. Indeed new studies from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) showed that Permian upstream emissions are over 3.7%, exceeding the threshold necessary for gas to overtake coal’s overall greenhouse gas impact. Combined with existing data, it’s now clear that natural gas’s carbon footprint is considerably worse than coal even before you account for LNG.

Moreover, drawing upon his and other research, Howarth can safely conclude that methane from shale gas become the largest new contributor of greenhouse gasses over the last decade worldwide, with some 35-70% of all the new methane worldwide stemming from U.S. fracking production.

Billowing Business

Following Howarth, attorney Steven Feit of the Center for International Environmental Law detailed the business plans and profit motives behind big oil’s push to increase markets for single use plastics. Over the last few years, investors have seized upon vast amounts of new ethane derived from fracked shale gas as a new feedstock enabling increased plastic production. Teaming with the oil and gas industry, petrochemical firms are ramping up fracked gas usage to fuel virgin plastic production. One of the largest drivers of this increase is the growing Ineos conglomerate. Based in the U.K. and owned by its richest citizen, Jim Ratcliffe, Ineos is developing a massive new “cracking” facility in the Port of Antwerp, already home to the second largest petrochemical cluster in the world behind Houston, Texas.

As fuel switching from coal to gas in the electrical generation segment slows, frackers are becoming more dependent on the plastics market for future growth. In reality simply fossil fuels in another form, oil majors like Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron are pouring billions into a massive expansion of new plastic and petrochemical facilities worldwide as the segment becomes the largest projected driver of demand growth over the next few decades. Moreover, Feit stated that given the anticipated shift towards electric vehicles, petrochemicals–mostly plastics–are seen by industry as a way to offset falling demand. Since greenhouse gasses (GHG) are emitted at every single stage of the plastics lifecycle, if indeed all the facilities planned by the industry come online, there will be no way the world will be able to meet the Paris Agreement limits.

Nevertheless, fracking has proven to be a profound economic failure with waves of more bankruptcies expected. Ironically,  although fracking business is expanding like never before, it’s now financially weaker than it’s ever been. Going forward, the industry sees single use plastics in particular as the difference between turning a profit or economic failure. This explains why lobbyists behind the scenes are using the Corona-related financial crisis to turn back single-use bans.

Other speakers in the first Webinar included Martin Hojsík, Slovak MEP with Renew Europe; Andy Gheorghiu of Food and Water Action Europe; Von Hernandez from Break Free From Plastic. Moderation was provided by Lisa Kuch of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Brussels.

Taking advantage of the coronavirus timeout, the organizers wisely seized the moment to organize both a rich panel of methane and fracking experts and record and release the webinar to the general public, further enabling activists and policymakers worldwide access to increasingly vital information. More to come on the next webinar which treated plans for expanding fossil gas use in Germany and Europe as part of the European Green Deal.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

1 Comment

  1. James Wimberley says

    The US fracked gas industry is in even worse condition than you write. Most companies in the business have negative cash flow, viz. sales minus operating costs and CAPEX ( This means that even if Trump manages to abuse the proposed $750 bn bond buyback fund to wipe out all the $125bn of junk bonds issued by the US oil and gas industry, the industry is still unsustainably loss-making at pre-Covid-19 prices. Strong forces will oppose any such bailout: the Fed (still not corrupted by Trump), business Republicans like Romney, and the oil majors, who look forward to picking up the pieces cheaply after mass bankruptcies of the small guys.

    The pandemic implies persistent low demand and rock-bottom prices. It brings forward the day of reckoning. My guess is it will happen this year. Note that gas consumption for electrical generation is not elastic to prices. Gas was cheaper than coal before, and it stays more expensive than renewables in marginal cost, which determines grid despatch. At most utilities will accelerate spending on new gas plants, which hasten the fall of coal. But they are not idiots and know the gas prices can’t last, so the investment effect will be minor.

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