Climatic Change

, Volume 106, Issue 4, pp 679-690

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations

A letter
  • Robert W. HowarthAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University Email author 
  • , Renee SantoroAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University
  • , Anthony IngraffeaAffiliated withSchool of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University


We evaluate the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas obtained by high-volume hydraulic fracturing from shale formations, focusing on methane emissions. Natural gas is composed largely of methane, and 3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the life-time of a well. These methane emissions are at least 30% more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas. The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured—as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids—and during drill out following the fracturing. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide, particularly over the time horizon of the first few decades following emission. Methane contributes substantially to the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas on shorter time scales, dominating it on a 20-year time horizon. The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.


Methane Greenhouse gases Global warming Natural gas Shale gas Unconventional gas Fugitive emissions Lifecycle analysis LCA Bridge fuel Transitional fuel Global warming potential GWP