A team of researchers from Cornell University has published the first comprehensive study  looking at the impact of shale gas extraction on the environment and has concluded it is worse for the climate than burning coal.

Lead researcher Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology at the university in Ithaca, N.Y., said his team came to that conclusion after studying the carbon dioxide emitted from burning natural gas and the carbon dioxide and methane that leaks from well heads and pipes.

'The process is moving ahead without ever really having had an adequate science basis of what the environmental consequences are...that sort of analysis should have been done before this whole fracking process was promoted in my opinion'—Robert Howarth, Cornell University

"Unfortunately natural gas is mostly methane and methane is an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas," said Howarth. "Even small venting and small leakages add up hugely to the greenhouse gas footprint of this fuel."

Howarth said researchers found many leaks of methane at well heads where there are between 100 and 150 different connections, valves and vents to control the pressure inside the wells.

The study also found there were significant leaks immediately after the initial hydraulic fracturing  took place.

"At the same time there's often just a free flow of gas from the well — very, very large flows at that period of time," Howarth said. "The best data we could come up with ... almost two per cent of the lifetime production of a gas well is leaked to the atmosphere in those two weeks following hydro-fracking  and given what a potent greenhouse gas methane is, that two per cent leakage is a big factor."

Hydraulic fracturing or "hydro-fracking" is a relatively novel form of gas extraction that involves the injection of a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to create cracks or fissures in shale rock formations deep underground.

Howarth said governments around the world have been doing a poor job of monitoring the leakage from wells, and there hasn't been any scientific research into the impact hydraulic fracturing may be having on groundwater or air quality. 

"The process is moving ahead without ever really having had an adequate scientific basis of what the environmental consequences are," he said. "That sort of analysis should have been done before this whole fracking process was promoted."

Environment minister responds

Environment Minister Margaret-Ann Blaney said she agrees that government should have sufficient scientific data before deciding whether to give oil and gas companies the green light to drill for shale gas in New Brunswick.

In March, Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup said it would take three to four years for a major shale gas development to be up and running, Blaney said on Wednesday that it's a minimum of two years away.

"We don't have a lot of really good data to determine the actual emissions," said Blaney. "But what we do know, at least based on the information that's available for New Brunswick, is that the CO2 or the carbon content of the gas in New Brunswick is less than one per cent, which is very low compared to other jurisdictions, and the methane is of a high quality and that can be placed in the pipeline with minimal processing. That much we do know."

Blaney said shale gas development is an opportunity for New Brunswick that should be explored but said it won't move ahead unless the Alward government believes it can move ahead in an environmentally responsible way.

Energy Minister Craig Leonard has said new regulations for natural gas development will be in place before any major projects get underway. Currently nine oil and gas companies hold a total of 71 agreements to explore for oil and natural gas on more than 1.4 million hectares of land in the province.