Why Methane Matters

Decades ago, methane was a nuisance. A hazard in coal mines and a by-product of oil fields; the gas was siphoned and released freely into the atmosphere. Nowadays, this once-wasted gas has helped to create explosive economic booms in some of the same regions of the United States most sorely tested by the great oil, coal and steel boom-bust cycles of the past.

Methane and other hydrocarbons comprise what we know as ‘natural gas’. And it’s this natural gas that companies are so industriously drilling for in regions from western Pennsylvania to North Dakota. The process of drilling for natural gas is called hydraulic fracturing. Commonly referred to as ‘fracking,’ this process has received criticism for lax regulations and for the drilling process itself, which may cause harm to the groundwater supply. In some cases, methane is released from fissures created in the shale by the drilling and reaches the surface where it may contaminate water or be released into the atmosphere.

Photo by Barbara Grace

Photo by Barbara Grace

And this is why methane matters. Methane holds 25 percent more heat than CO2, making it a powerful greenhouse gas. (A gas that may increase in amount as the planet warms.) This is especially true in the Arctic where deposits of methane hydrates have the potential to release tons of methane into the atmosphere. Alternatively, the hydrates could serve as a huge, untapped source of energy.

So methane matters but it is a double edged-sword. It can be a great source of energy, but it can also be harmful if not controlled.

Moreover, coming from a region where I have seen firsthand, the impact of fracking, there has been little cultural consideration given to the impact of the industry on the towns it takes over. New hotels, stores and development moves to accommodate the droves of new workers, but production outputs of fracking wells have decreased faster than expected so — it is not unreasonable to ask, what happens when the drills move out? Fracking regions across the country, that were hit hard by the decline of coal and steel, are on a path to experience another boom-bust cycle that threatens to leave them without the sustainable development and investment they need, and with concerns over the long-term impacts and environmental damage.

Photo by Maureen Plitt. A natural gas drilling site in northern Pennsylvania.

Photo by Maureen Plitt. A natural gas drilling site in northern Pennsylvania.

We should consider how our energy supply can benefit from natural gas extraction. But unlike in previous eras, we should take the cautionary tales of the past and the scientific findings of the present, to proceed responsibly and ethically. If we rush to exploit the energy potential of methane without giving proper consideration to those towns, public health and the environment, we may make a mess we don’t know how to clean up.

Written by: Emily Connor, National Geographic Education Intern

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