If Better Safeguards Were in Place, Could Fracking Provide at Least a Temporary Solution?
Natural gas is good for the environment! Greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S. have fallen to their lowest level in 20 years, while natural gas generation increased 40% this March compared to a year ago. Increased use of natural gas has enabled the closing of the dirtiest coal plants in the U.S.; indeed, coal plummeted from providing 44.6% of total electricity in the first quarter of 2011 to 36% a year later.
Natural gas is bad for the environment! Recently, environmentalists have rallied to end fracking, which allows exploitation of previously inaccessible natural gas in shale deposits. This procedure releases far more of the greenhouse gas methane than conventional gas drilling and risks leaking toxic chemicals into groundwater. And natural gas is providing such cheap energy that it is killing incentives to invest in renewables.
Yet fracking enabled the drop in natural gas prices that is killing coal. So should we support it or not?
One key point is that the majority of natural gas in the U.S. is still being extracted by conventional means. As of 2011, shale gas, the kind that is fracked, made up about 20% of production, enough to have greatly reduced the cost of gas without releasing a commensurate amount of methane. And shale gas is expected to comprise “about 47 percent of U.S. dry gas production by 2035” according to Congressional Digest. Indeed, prices could double and natural gas would still outcompete coal. Yet the amount of gas recovered from shale is only going to accelerate, which means more greenhouse gases released.
Gas vs. Coal
How does fracked gas compare to coal? This depends on the time scale, since methane is a far more pernicious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, yet dissipates far more quickly. According to a much-noted study led by Robert Howarth, “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…over 100 years.” Replacing coal with natural gas, if it’s fracked using current technology, seems to be a losing proposition. Howarth’s conclusions, however, were quickly contested. Clearly, more study is needed.
It also seems likely that better fracking techniques will emit less methane. As The Economist explains it, “Properly concreted well-shafts do not leak; regurgitants can be collected and made safe; preventing gas venting and flaring would limit methane emissions to acceptable levels; and the risk of tremors, which commonly occur as a result of conventional oil-and-gas activities, can be contained by careful monitoring. The IEA [International Energy Agency] estimates that such measures would add 7% to the cost of the average shale-gas well.” Unfortunately, fracking has proceeded in a rush, with a kind of “wild west” mentality.
The 2005 Energy Policy Act prevented regulation of fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a grossly negligent provision. This is especially so considering that fracking involves injecting hundreds of thousands or millions of gallons of water, laced with an array of chemicals and sand, deep underground. If not properly regulated, it can contaminate groundwater, although the health effects need further study. Notoriously, as shown in the 2010 documentary Gasland, some tap water adjacent to fracking projects has even caught fire. In addition, the storage of wastewater from fracking has been blamed for stimulating earthquakes. Clearly, if we are to frack, it needs to be done with great care, after comprehensive environmental review and with strong regulation.
Fracking’s Silver Lining?
Yet, the reduction in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions points to a benefit for fracking, at least if its environmental footprint can be reduced. And, as Maurie Cohen, the editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy points out, fracking represents—at least for a state like Pennsylvania—a form of energy relocalization. The residents of northeastern and central Pennsylvania are no longer as able to externalize the social and environmental costs of fossil-fuel extraction on distant energy-producing regions like the Gulf coast. This situation raises a curious paradox. Why do we celebrate the relocalization of food production but denigrate similar developments within the realm of energy extraction? Making Pennsylvanians more aware of the adverse effects of their resource-utilization practices could prompt people to reconsider the prolificacy of contemporary lifestyles and mobilize political pressure to ensure vigilant regulation.
We Can Do Better
Still, there is clearly a better way to lower greenhouse gases—switch to renewable energy with zero emissions. However, such energy is not yet ready to generate more than a small percentage of electricity, leading many to suggest that, for the time being, we employ natural gas as a “bridge fuel.” Yet again, the vast availability of natural gas—one estimate is that we have 70 years worth—could seduce us into neglecting renewables (as we did following the energy crisis of the 1970s, when fossil fuel again became plentiful and cheap).
Another question is how much we should worry just about greenhouse gas emissions, when energy extraction has many other environmental impacts. Both coal and fracking, as currently extracted, are harmful in many ways and should be flat-out opposed. With other sources we need to decide on our main objective. Nuclear energy, for instance, has virtually zero climate emissions, but, besides the waste problem, has a small potential for a horrendous disaster. Dams create tremendous local environmental problems, yet have zero greenhouse emissions. Where do these alternatives fit in the energy equation?
I’m going to suggest a hierarchy that might help environmentalists, and policy makers, decide what to concentrate on. Due to its global nature, I suggest that climate change is public enemy number one, but that we need to watch other environmental problems. For electricity generation, here’s how I’d provisionally rank the options.
1. Renewable energy including wind, solar, and geothermal; energy efficiency
3. Conventional natural gas
4. Nuclear; fracked natural gas with strong environmental safeguards
5. Coal; fracked natural gas without safeguards
To keep things simple, I’m leaving out transportation fuel here, primarily oil and biofuels, as a different kind of energy. I’m also aware that there are strong arguments for and against these ratings—this is just a suggestion for the kind of prioritizing that could be done. However, I believe such thinking can help environmentalists decide which projects to support, which to oppose, and how much effort to throw into these battles.
Clearly, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have been allocating their efforts effectively in the recent campaign against coal and in opposing fracking. With further study, and should proper environmental safeguards be in place, it’s conceivable that fracked gas could move up the hierarchy. The question becomes, should we then support fracking, if it enables us to continue to shut down coal plants? My provisional answer is yes, but only if we are moving forward with all possible speed on the number one priorities of renewable energy and energy efficiency. We also have to be careful that the presence of cheap natural gas doesn’t spur increased energy consumption. Given all this, it’s best to use as little natural gas as possible, but it may still act as a “bridge fuel” enabling lower global greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the short term.