The Fracking Divide

By Doug Allen


Kevin Drum thinks the recent Citigroup report that sees natural gas as a major ally for renewable deployment will cause some tension among environmentalists:

If this analysis is correct, it’s going to provide some major heartburn for environmentalists. Fracking, for all its dangers, may turn out to be the least of our various fossil fuel evils.

Jason Mark focuses in on how this issue is dividing green advocates:

[S]ince the fracking boom began in earnest, a larger, anti-fracking grassroots has emerged. … Some homeowners had their wells contaminated with flammable methane. Places like Ohio and Arkansas that weren’t used to seismic activity started to experience earthquakes when underground wastewater injections stimulated geologic faults. Today, the movement against gas fracking has become a cause célèbre (Yoko Ono and Mark Ruffalo have an “Artists Against Fracking” group) and is one of the most invigorating issues among grassroots environmentalists. …

[Ted] Nordhaus and [Michael] Shellenberger [of the Breakthrough Institute] have a nearly opposite worry: that the intensity from [anti-fracking] partisans like [Sandra] Steingraber and [Maura] Stephens has forced some big green groups to retreat from gas. The World Resources Institute, a D.C.-based environmental research organization, is an example of that shift. As recently as early 2012, the organization was expressing qualified enthusiasm for gas as a “potential game changer” that “should be part of America’s low-carbon energy mix.” But when asked recently to comment on the gas controversy, Jennifer Morgan, director of the institute’s climate and energy program, chose her words carefully. “It’s an extremely fraught and tough discussion,” Morgan told me. “I think we recognize both the risks—and the risks are significant—and the potential opportunity.”

I’m pretty firmly in the Nordhaus/Shellenberger camp on this one. Among the resources that can provide the operational support needed for high levels of renewable penetration in our energy mix, I think natural gas strikes the best balance between cost and environmental impact. It would take major advances in energy storage or “clean coal” technologies to convince me otherwise.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t worry about the problems caused by natural gas extraction and transport. There is evidence [pdf] from the Marcellus Shale formation that natural gas wells were contaminating local groundwater resources, but the study’s authors were unable to determine whether the leakage was due to unplanned fractures or leaky well-casings. It seems to me that the latter is solvable through better industry standards and/or regulation, while the former is a more fundamental problem. Studies from Arkansas [pdf] and Wyoming are similarly inconclusive about the link between fracking and water contamination.

The other major uncertainty surrounding the environmental impact of natural gas is the effect of methane leakages, or “fugitive methane emissions” along the delivery chain. These leakages are especially problematic since methane is a much more “powerful” greenhouse gas, with 25 times [pdf] the heat-trapping ability over 100 years of CO2. Michael Obeiter and James Bradbury explain the implications:

At the point of combustion, natural gas is roughly half as carbon-intensive as coal. However, this comparison fails to account for upstream fugitive methane emissions. When used for electric power generation, natural gas is typically much more efficient than coal, but natural gas is not a more energy efficient fuel option for all uses—for example, in the case of vehicles. Also, if fugitive methane emissions exceed 3 percent of total gas production, natural gas’s climate advantage over coal disappears over a 20-year time horizon.

The critical question is: Given the current extent of U.S. natural gas production—and the fact that production is projected to expand by more than 50 percent in the coming decades—are we doing everything we can to ensure that emissions are as low as is technologically and economically feasible? The answer to that question today is clearly “no.”

Clearly, there is more information to be gathered about the environmental impact of extracting natural gas and using it for electricity generation, and I look forward to the conclusion of a currently running EPA study to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge. Even before the conclusion of this study, however, I would like to see the EPA start looking into ways to eliminate leakages where it is “technologically and economically feasible,” whether below the surface or above. But until I see more convincing evidence indicating that fracking cannot be done safely and cleanly, I think natural gas will continue to be an important part of any long-term strategy to reduce emissions.

(Photo: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images)