Richard Muller, an University of California Berkeley physicist known for renouncing his climate change “skepticism”, has recently released a report that positions fracking as a cure for air pollution concerns, especially in China. The report claims that shale gas, accessed by the fracking process, is a “Wonderful gift that has arrived right on time.”

Chinese pollution

“Expert” claims fracking will fix China’s pollution problem.

The report comes as Muller, along with co-author and daughter Elizabeth, are starting a new venture called the China Shale Fund, which seeks to promote shale drilling and fracking in China. The third member of China Shale Fund is Marlan Downey, a longtime Shell executive who specializes in opening up oil and gas operations in developing countries. Downey currently serves on the board of Roxana, a shale gas drilling company and Berkeley Earth, the nonprofit by whom Richard and Elizabeth Muller are currently employed. Through his connections with Downey, Richard Muller has made several trips to meet with Shell in Texas, and has visited Shell’s drilling sites in China.

The Mullers’ article, titled “Why Every Serious Environmentalist Should Favour Fracking,” posits that fracking China’s shale would allow China to burn more natural gas. Muller claims this would decrease dangerous levels of air pollution caused by coal. Muller is specifically concerned about PM2.5, air pollutants that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs. PM2.5 is a serious and deadly problem in China and the developing world. However, Chinese energy experts like Greenpeace’s Lifeng Fang do not agree that burning fossil fuels like gas are a solution. In response to the Mullers’ paper, Lifeng Fang commented:

“Burning coal is the biggest source of air pollution in China, the country is still highly dependent on coal. China must stop the coal rush, by cutting excessive capacity from the steel and cement industries. Renewable Energy is the proven solution for China for sourcing clean energy without air pollution, CO2 emission and intensive water use. But, shale gas is not even the transition energy for China.”

People living near fracking operations would be surprised to learn that fracking was beneficial to air quality. In Colorado, the industry recently admitted that fracking caused serious air quality problems. In areas of Colorado with shale drilling and fracking, the air quality is as bad as Los Angeles, twice the level that federal regulators say should exist. Families in Colorado have been uprooted and forced to move from shale drilling areas because of health concerns. In fact, levels of PM2.5 have skyrocketed in Colorado, due to the tens of thousands of diesel tractor trailers necessary to service fracking sites. The Mullers never addresses this in the paper.

The Muller paper also gives schizophrenic answers to the problem of climate change. Muller oscillates from claiming that global warming is “a serious long term threat” and that gas “can help address the global warming issue” to claiming that gas “will not halt global warming.”

Studies on the greenhouse impact of methane, the primary component of gas, have shown it to be up to 105 times as powerful as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Furthermore, scientists have theorized that fugitive emissions of methane from fracking wells could make gas worse than coal pollution for the climate. A study in the Uintah basin in Utah found gas wells leaking up to 60 tons of methane per hour. When the entire lifecycle of gas is taken in to account, including the gas used for chemical feedstocks, as a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project has done, it becomes clear that shale gas and fracking pose serious threats to the climate system.

The Mullers’ paper calls the issue of fugitive emissions and their global warming impact “mistaken,” because methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2. However, the Mullers do not address the fact that continued increases in shale drilling and fracking lead to expanding levels of methane loss, thereby providing a constant stream of methane into the atmosphere for years to come.

The report was commissioned by the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank started by Margaret Thatcher and based in the United Kingdom. The Centre for Policy Studies, which is funded in part by tobacco corporations, is known for its conservative, pro industry politics. The Centre has been a key booster of fracking in the United Kingdom, where drilling has met with massive protests.

Photo by Gustavo Medico released under a Creative Commons license.