Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

By Daphne Wysham, July 6, 2013

Drilling for natural gas

Drilling for natural gas

The World Bank is phasing out of coal and ramping up support for "fracked" natural gas, even though research suggests that climate impacts of fracking may be even worse than coal in terms of its full life-cycle carbon footprint according to a Cornell University study.

Climate activists cheered President Barack Obama in a speech recently when he announced his plans to tackle carbon-intensive coal-fired power plants, both at home, via stronger EPA restrictions on CO2 emissions, and abroad, by ending public finance for coal. A new document leaked from within the World Bank reveals the Bank may echo the plans outlined by President Obama, and intends to stop lending for new coal plants and coal mines and ramp up its investments in natural gas globally.

The Bank’s document claims that “natural gas… has half the carbon footprint of coal at the point of combustion.”  The key point in this sentence is “at the point of combustion.” It is before and after the point of combustion of gas where the climate concern lies. A recent study authored by  ecologist  Robert Howarth of Cornell University suggests that unconventional gas, produced via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” may actually be worse than coal, in terms of  its full life-cycle carbon footprint. When burned, methane transforms to CO2.  But methane leakage represents about 8 percent of the natural gas fracked and transported in the United States, says Howarth, twice that of conventional gas.  Methane, over a 20-year time span, is 105 times more potent than CO2, according to Howarth, making fracked gas worse than coal.

The document, allegedly to be discussed by the World Bank’s board of directors on July 19, 2013, states: “The WBG [World Bank Group] will cease providing financial support for greenfield coal power generation projects, except in rare circumstances…The WBG will continue to finance investments in various industrial and commercial processes—such as steel, cement, and other manufacturing operations—while seeking gains in energy efficiency and employment of best practices.” The leaked Bank document also suggests it will consider financing coal projects where carbon capture and storage technology is in place.

In addition to scaling up its engagement in promotion of “unconventional”—or so-called “fracked” natural gas– the leaked document suggests the World Bank  is committed  “to scaling up engagement in hydropower after largely withdrawing from it for a time.”


Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) where she directs the Genuine Progress Project. The Genuine Progress project is utilizing a new economic indicator, now in place in the states Maryland and Vermont, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), to better capture and measure the markers of a high quality of life.

Article courtesy of Institute for Policy Studies


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