A Changing Oil Industry Poses Increasing Climate Risk

Methane Emissions from “Tight Oil” Sources Require Stronger Safeguards

Published May 11, 2016

Washington (May 11, 2016)—The oil industry is rapidly changing, deploying more aggressive methods of extracting oil that come with a major threat to the climate. That’s the conclusion of “The Truth about Tight Oil,” a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

More than half of U.S. oil production comes from “tight oil,” which is extracted from hard-to-access deposits by hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as fracking. This new method of extraction has increased domestic oil production, but has also led to more unnecessary pollution, especially from methane, a potent heat-trapping gas.

“If we’re going to reduce the risk of climate change, not only do we have to use less oil, but we also need to reduce the climate impact of the oil we do use,” said David Babson, a fuels engineer at UCS and the author of the new report. “A quarter of oil's climate emissions come not from burning it, but from extracting, refining and transporting it—and the increasing role of tight oil means extraction is causing more methane pollution than ever. The oil industry has to be held accountable for its bad practices.”

Over a 20-year time frame, methane is 86 times more potent than CO2 as a global warming pollutant. Even small amounts of methane emissions can dramatically speed the rate of climate impacts, such as sea-level rise. Methane from tight oil operations is too often vented directly into the atmosphere or burned in a process called flaring.

“New studies show that we’ve been underestimating methane emissions from tight oil operations,” said Babson.  And even as tight oil production increases, we don’t have rules in place to make sure oil companies are monitoring and disclosing sufficient data to fully characterize methane emissions.

“We can’t hope to reduce the risk of climate change unless we understand more about the impact of tight oil extraction and require companies to take steps—using technology we already have—to cut emissions. The rules that govern pollution from oil extraction are outdated, and we need stronger policies to ensure tight oil operations do not harm our environment.”