Why Not Frack? is the title of an article in a recent issue of the “NY Review of Books.” One of the best environmental journalists we’ve got, Bill McKibben, is the author. McKibben, of course, is more than just a journalist. He’s a ground-breaking thinker and, in recent years, a very serious and effective activist. He is the driving force behind 350.org and gave us most of the push to block – for now – the Keystone XL pipeline. I have, if you haven’t gathered, enormous respect for his abilities.
However, when it comes to natural gas and its extraction from shale deposits using hydraulic fracturing, I think, although he’s got valid concerns, he’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In his article, he makes the ubiquitous arguments against fracking that many folks make these days: it can contaminate groundwater and surface water and it can also exacerbate air pollution, including a potential burst in methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from fugitive emissions. These are not idle concerns.
However, there are aspects of the big picture that McKibben and others seem to neglect – or at least to which they don’t give sufficient credence. First of all, the anti-fracking activists with whom I’ve spoken don’t believe for a second that regulators can handle the problems. McKibben reflects this near-total skepticism about the power of environmental regulation: “In any event, overmatched regulators who can’t even keep an accurate count of the number of wells are having a hard time coping with waste products—especially since the political power of the industry just keeps growing.” I don’t buy it. Why? Because I’ve seen environmental law and regulation work and perform miracles over 40+ years. Strong laws don’t get passed and tough regulations enacted and enforced, to be sure, without sustained pressure and the involvement of environmentalists. But when we do bring focus and commitment to bear, good things happen.
Because of the spotlight on fracking, the State of New York is in the process of creating very strict, very thorough regs. The EPA is also involved in a comprehensive study and has recently initiated a rule-making for fracking wastewater. The US Department of Energy commissioned a task force with some blue chip environmentalists, like Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Kathleen McGinty, a former head of Bill Clinton’s White House Council on Environmental Quality. The task force’s final report has 20 concrete recommendations that would, if fully implemented, make the industry’s activities safe and help produce a clean, useful product. I flagged some of the progress along these lines last year here.
(Beyond hydraulic fracturing, it should be noted, is a waterless fracking technique being developed using propane. If it proves its promise, a lot of our problems here become greatly diminished.)
McKibben offers that what there is to like about natural gas is that it can and does displace coal use. Well, Joe Romm reported recently that coal power has dropped below 40% of U.S. electricity, the lowest in 33 years. One of the principal drivers for that has been fuel switching to natural gas. Natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does in power production. That, my friends, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But gas does more. It has far fewer emissions across the board, including for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, particulates and mercury. Particulates are, not incidentally, another potent climate forcing agent.
But natural gas has other benefits. One very big thing it does is that it fuels the cogeneration plants that are growing in number and importance as essential parts of our power production. The one at NYU, where I teach, approaches 90% efficiency. That compares rather favorably, wouldn’t you say, to the approximately 37% efficiency of a conventional central thermal electric power plant. What criminal waste! What we need to be doing now is building cogeneration facilities by the dozens.
The very good people at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins and his crew of extraordinarily thoughtful engineers, scientists and designers, have come up with Reinventing Fire, a plan to wean the United States from coal and oil. Natural gas is a key enabler for that felicitous outcome. Natural gas displaces oil as well as coal. It has a key role, in Lovins’s vision: “Natural gas can be used across a wide spectrum of centralized and distributed applications including combined heat and power— a key component of the industrial sector transition away from oil and coal.” For the purposes of eliminating oil from transportation by the year 2050, natural gas has a number of roles: as a feedstock for hydrogen production for fuel cells, to power utility-grade and distributed generation facilities for electricity for vehicles, and for direct use in vehicles. Natural gas used for hydrogen, for instance, generates two to three times less CO2 per mile than gasoline.
Another argument made by some concerned about the future of renewable energy is that the burgeoning of natural gas will crowd solar, wind, geothermal, etc. out. However, one savvy clean tech analyst, Ron Pernick, from Clean Edge, thinks that natural gas is perfectly complementary to the continued growth of renewables.
McKibben, Lovins, geniuses like the late Hermann Scheer, among many others, and not to mention you and I, all agree that the big picture requires a transformation in how we do business. Natural gas, safely and efficiently sourced, is an immensely valuable tool in our transition to a fully decarbonized world. At this late date, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We’ll get to perfect a little later.