Climate change and natural gas dynamic governance.

Author:Burleson, Elizabeth
Position:Introduction to II. Climate Governance Follow-Through A. United States Federal Coordination? p. 1217-1245 - The Law and Policy of Hydraulic Fracturing: Addressing the Issues of the Natural Gas Boom

"Every year, billions of dollars worth of natural gas are wasted; burned or flared at oil fields across the world. Such flaring produces some 400 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions."

--World Bank *


Hydraulic fracturing has been a game changer for the energy field, bringing to mind the "nothing in excess" carving at Delphi. Whether heeding ancient oracles or cutting-edge principles of calibration, I argue that dynamic governance innovation can facilitate climate-energy-water balancing to address natural gas governance gaps. Methane lost to the atmosphere not only disrupts the climate at a rate over twenty times that of carbon dioxide,(1) but it also constitutes a loss of revenue. Low natural gas prices and distance to markets have been the key drivers of flaring, absent a price on carbon dioxide, methane, and other climate destabilizers. Methane is the primary componen--typically 70 to 90 percent--of natural gas.(2) Reducing methane emissions through governance innovation presents a profitable way of enhancing economic, social, and environmental synergies.


Venting and flaring natural gas flies in the face of efforts to address climate change.(3) Yet, the hydraulic fracturing debate remains characterized by an underlying sustainability tension among economic, social, and environmental integrity rather than a coordinated effort to find dynamic governance synergies. Rising natural gas leakage is a problem looking for a governance handle. The problem is becoming widespread, and existing regulation is inconsistent. Natural gas valued at $50 billion by the World Bank is flared annually, contributing around 400 million tons of [CO.sub.2] equivalent to climate change,(4) an amount equal to the average annual energy consumption of Italy.(5) Innovative governance coordination can help reduce this waste by increasing the amount of gas sold to market, injected back underground, or used to power operations, and it can also increase local communities' access to energy.

Recontextualizing the fracking debate, this Article addresses unconventional natural gas from the underexplored contexts of energy systems analysis and social movement analysis. It seeks to highlight multi-problem-solving approaches that can transcend problem shifting to identify and implement broad energy-climate-water solutions. It does so through a public participation frame that can contribute to local, state, national, and global cooperation to expand energy availability and protect climate as a public commons.

Part I will provide an overview of the elements that make up the climate challenge to implement mitigation momentum. It will sketch the contours of the governance gap globally and in the United States, where oil and gas systems released nearly 40 percent of U.S. methane emissions.6 While it may be challenging to monitor 1.5 million miles of natural gas pipelines throughout the United States, it is not only possible but also profitable to stop venting and flaring natural gas. (7)

Part II will suggest dynamic governance innovations that may be able to help diffuse natural gas political pressure. It will consider where federal coordination can interstitially work with local, state, and non-state-actor stakeholders. It will analyze how unconventional natural gas emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane can be reduced through a combination of monitoring, technology--forcing measures that incentivize green technologies, and market-flexibility measures, such as cap and trade, which can help share aggregate information and implement cost--effective green technologies that genuinely mitigate climate change. Part II will also offer recommendations for effective climate mitigation and enhanced energy access through innovation.

This Article concludes that inclusive decision making can help energy sites increase energy access and prioritize public health and environmental integrity as well as profit.

I base this Article upon the premise that social movement identities and objectives vary with context and access to information. Furthermore, I rest my topology on the premise that inclusive, dynamic decision making can reduce definitional uncertainty regarding what constitutes environmentally sound technology that expands energy access and addresses climate change.

Based upon the above premises, I map a topology of dynamic governance that can address the climate impacts of natural gas emissions through technical and public--private innovative coordination. In designing this theory, I rely on the following assumptions. First, I assume that flaring will continue in the context of expanding unconventional natural gas production.(8) Second, I assume that the private sector needs a social license to operate, irrespective of existing legal exemptions for unconventional natural gas extraction, and that there are many data points on a spectrum between social prohibition and full acceptance. In the middle realm of acquiescence, shared understandings can lead to economic, social, and environmental synergies. This cannot be genuinely accomplished through glossing over deeply held beliefs--be they economic, social, or environmental. Ecological and health thresholds are public goods on par with economic growth. Bonds that designate clean up funds to specified escrow accounts cannot redress the array of legal challenges facing cradle-to-grave unconventional gas development. Broader dynamic transboundary climate-energy-water cooperation can help fill key governance gaps. Low natural gas prices and distance to markets have been the key drivers of flaring, absent incentives to recognize the costs of greenhouse gas emissions and internalize these costs. Coordinating efforts to gather and share emissions information is a key element in recognizing the price of methane, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases.

Dynamic governance can help increase methane leakage reporting in particular and greenhouse emission reductions generally. This Article argues that addressing energy and climate in an integrate manner should involve coordinated state and non--state initiatives to measure and reduce energy sector greenhouse gases. It does so with a particular emphasis on recent unconventional natural gas developments within the larger challenge to respond effectively to climate change.


    The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has yet to be fleshed out into an implementation plan that can effectively address climate destabilization. With near--universal ratification of the framework climate convention, countries around the world committed to the precautionary principle of not letting uncertainty stand in the way of addressing climate change. (9) For the purposes of this Article, the following UNFCCC definitions will be foundational:

    1. "Adverse effects of climate change" means changes in the physical environment or biota resulting from climate change which have significant deleterious effects on the composition, resilience or productivity of natural and managed ecosystems or on the operation of socio--economic systems or on human health and welfare.

    2. "Climate change" means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. (10)

    The task at hand is to overcome a complex collective action problem and start incentivizing environmentally sound innovation. Not everyone shares the same definition of environmentally sound technology or governance, yet finding shared understandings can help advance climate-energy-water coordination.

    This brings us to the polarized hydrofracking debate. Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals underground to fracture rocks, allowing oil and natural gas to flow back to the surface. (11) Combined with new horizontal drilling methods, hydraulic fracturing poses challenges to balancing economic, social, and environmental priorities. (12) This challenge is exacerbated by very low natural gas prices, due to warmer winters lowering demand and unconventional natural gas development causing a supply glut. (13) Cracked well casings and abandoned wells pose particular risks for reducing natural gas air and water emissions. (14) One particularly problematic question is how to go about capping abandoned wells--a task...

To continue reading