Monday, April 21, 2014
Exit from comment view mode. Click to hide this space
15

Fear of Fracking

CAMBRIDGE – Against all expectations, US emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, since peaking in 2007, have fallen by 12% as of 2012, back to 1995 levels. The primary reason, in a word, is “fracking.” Or, in 11 words: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to recover deposits of shale gas.

No other factor comes close to providing a plausible explanation. Unlike the European Union, the US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, in which participating countries committed to cut CO2 emissions by roughly 5%, relative to 1990 levels, by 2012. Nor is America’s continued emissions reduction a side effect of lower economic activity: While the US economy peaked in late 2007, the same time as emissions, the recession ended in June 2009 and GDP growth since then, though inadequate, has been substantially higher than in Europe. Yet US emissions have continued to fall, while EU emissions began to rise again after 2009.

One can virtually prove that shale gas has been the major influence driving the fall in US emissions. Just ten years ago, the natural-gas industry was so sure that domestic production was reaching its limit that it made large investments in terminals to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). Yet fracking has increased supply so rapidly that these facilities are now being converted to export LNG.

Natural gas emits only half as much CO2 as coal, and occupies a rapidly increasing share of electricity generation – up 37% since 2007, while coal’s share has plummeted by 25%. Indeed, natural gas has drawn close to coal as the number one source of US power. Renewables still constitute only 5% of power generation in the US – less than hydroelectric and far less than nuclear, let alone coal or gas.

Meanwhile, the share of coal – the dirtiest fuel – has been rising, not falling, in the rest of the world’s energy mix. Since 2010, coal dependence has risen even in Europe, where some countries are phasing out emission-free nuclear power and no natural-gas boom has materialized (though CO2 emissions remain far higher in the US than in Europe).

The advent of shale gas has had a variety of implications – more good than bad – for the US economy, national security, and the environment. The economic benefits include job creation in the short term, “re-shoring” of some manufacturing activities in the medium term, and, lower macroeconomic vulnerability to global oil shocks in the long term.

Moving beyond economics, America’s reduction in net energy imports – which have already fallen by one-half since 2007 – means that its foreign policy will be less constrained by events in the Middle East. In Europe, the new technology could similarly break Russia’s politically troublesome stranglehold on natural-gas supplies.

The net environmental effects of growing reliance on shale gas appear beneficial as well. The substitution of natural gas for coal has put the US on track to meet the Obama administration’s international commitment to reduce CO2 emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Gas is also better for local air quality, owing to the absence of the sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury, and particulates emitted by burning coal.

Yet environmentalists are overwhelmingly opposed to fracking, evidently for three reasons. None, however, is persuasive.

First, fracking’s opponents worry that shale gas will displace renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. But the fact is that CO2 emissions cannot be reduced without cutting coal use, and shale gas is already displacing coal in the US. This is not speculation; it is happening now. Even if some cleaner source becomes viable later, we would still need natural gas as a bridge to get us from here to there.

Put differently, if the world continues to build coal-fired power plants at the current rate, those plants will still be around in 2050, regardless of what other technologies become viable in the meantime. Solar power cannot stop those coal-fired plants from being built today. Natural gas can.

Moreover, natural gas also heats buildings. As the graph below shows, it now accounts for 31% of overall primary energy production, surpassing coal, at 26%, while for solar and wind combined account for just 2%.

[For a high-resolution version of the graph, click here.]

Second, environmentalists worry about local risks, especially to water supplies. There are also fears of methane leaks and induced seismicity. Such concerns cannot be dismissed. It is not enough to proclaim that fracking should be safe if operators are responsible and regulators do their job. One must consider the likelihood that in some under-regulated US state, someone will not act responsibly and some local water supply will become contaminated. The industry should follow best practices, including making public the chemicals that it uses. High-quality environmental and safety regulation – and vigorous enforcement – are essential.

But, in deciding whether to allow fracking (France has banned it, for example, and New York state has a moratorium), one must compare the risks to health, safety, and the environment with those of the alternatives. Even a serious fracking mishap would be unlikely to cause as much damage as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in 2011, or coal-mining tragedies that play out dramatically in frequent explosions and collapses (and more insidiously in the form of lung disease, water pollution, and soil erosion).

Finally, some, especially in Europe, fear new and unfamiliar technologies in general; adhering to what is sometimes called the “precautionary principle,” they place the burden of proof on the innovation, rather than symmetrically on the status quo. But, while it is true that a fundamentally new technology poses risks that are unknown, that is no excuse for neglecting to weigh the known risks of the existing technology.

The precautionary principle is hard to dislodge. Is it really true that new technologies are necessarily riskier? By this logic, men who worry about their virility should hesitate to try the unfamiliar new technology, Viagra, and instead stick with powdered rhino horn.

Read an extended version of this argument in Jeffrey Frankel’s blog post, “Frack to the Future.”

Exit from comment view mode. Click to hide this space
Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (15)

Please login or register to post a comment

  1. CommentedAlastair Leith

    Energy Demand has fallen in Australia and fracking a is relatively new (and disturbing) industrial process here. Despite AEMO forecasts saying (electrical) energy demand will continue to rise like it has in past decades, in the last few years energy efficiency measures and SolarPV have cause demand to plateau and indeed fall.

    This article is more of a talk through some suppositions kind of article than factual and scientific. Migratory fugative emissions from fracked gas and even 'natural gas' are reason enough to discount the "falling Emissions" senraio the author subscribes to. Methane is 104x as damaging to a save climate as CO2 over a 25 year span — and we may well see tipping points in the climate in the next ten years.

    The author gives us his best shot in the final paragraph, a weak simile of dubious relevance. If politics is the art of persuasion Mr Frankel must be accustom to convincing dim-witts.

    For more facts on gas and the reasons why on balance it's a bad investment for a safe climate and the environment etc go here:
    http://media.bze.org.au/nogas.pdf — apologies in advance — it's a very technical read but quite short.

    1. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      To Alastair Leith,
      If you can raise the scientific level of the debate, great. You say "Methane is 104x as damaging to a safe climate as CO2..." Would you agree, scientifically, that the relevant comparison (for natural gas versus coal) is per unit of energy, and not per-molecule or per-ton (methane versus CO2)?

      Jeff Frankel

  2. CommentedGerald Silverberg

    Quite aside from the local pollution problems, it is not at all clear fracking does not actually increase the overall greenhouse gas burden due to 1) significant methane leakage from wells and 2) the demand rebound effect from lower energy prices. Plus the coal that is no longer being burned at plants in the US is flooding the world market at cheap prices and competing with renewables in Europe and possibly elsewhere, and not being left in the ground.

    As long as CO2 and methane continue to be emitted into the atmosphere at accelerating rates, regardless of where this happens, we are no closer to solving the global warming problem

  3. CommentedJuan Gabriel Gómez Albarello

    All readers would be very grateful if professor Frankel reveals whether he or his family has interests in the fracking industry.

    1. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      To Juan Gabriel Gomez Albarello:

      I thought I answered this question April 29. Is it my family you are asking about now? No, my family does not have interests in the fracking industry.
      And I actually believe in the environment rather strongly.

      Jeff Frankel

  4. CommentedJeffrey Scofield

    Fracking is a distraction from the core problem of CO2 emissions, which is waste.  If no carbon tax exists, fracking serves as a way for those that are excessively wasteful to procure cheap carbon intensive fuel and pass externalities on to their neighbors.

    Who pays the clean up cost for the wastewater injected back into community water supply, or the unmonitored wells, or leaking methane, or the damage caused by seismic activity? Isn't this just passing the buck down the road so private companies and administrations can avoid telling consumers the truth, which is we have gone far above safe greenhouse emission levels, and that our entire economy is not only unsustainable in it's current form, but hasn't been for a long time.

    So imagine this scenario: Fracking companies do not collude with government officials to obscure the "trade secret" chemical cocktails.  Fracking companies clean the waste water BEFORE the water is placed back into any water supply. Fracking companies do not pull water from publicly owned parks.  Fracking companies place enough money in a fund to pay for any potential costs of seismic damage, or leaking methane emissions for the entire life of the well and casings. Fracking companies cease lobbying against carbon taxes.

  5. CommentedSean Mac

    The author concludes that "No other factor [but fracking] comes close to providing a plausible explanation" of the drop of emissions of carbon dioxide. Really? How unscientific above statement is! The author certainly doesn't mind to lose his credibility.

    There is never even a feasible way to measure such a claim, such a shameless generalization.

    Based on the author's rationale, why not attribute the Great Depression to the drop of emissions of carbon dioxide, since the economic activities have been drastically reduced at individual homes, and in the private and public sectors? Take a simple example: people may decide not to drive as often as before the Depression due to unemployment or increased debts.

    Since the natural gas industry is so powerful, many former governmental officials have been enlisted (actually “bought” would be a better term) to advocate on behalf of them. Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security Secretary, is a good example. Hopefully, this author, a former Clinton official, doesn't have any link with the natural gas industry. Otherwise, he should disclose such a link.

    For any concerned citizen, if you want to know the truth about Fracking--not the propaganda lauded by the PR machine of the natural gas industry, please watch the documentaries, Gasland and Gasland II, you will learn the harmful impact of fracking on the lives of ordinary folks.

    1. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      To Sean Mac:

      No: for the record, I have no link to the natural gas or petroleum industry !

      You don't seem to address the argument I make to substantiate the claim that the fracking revolution is "the primary reason" for the continued decline in US carbon emissions over the last five years. [Incidentally, the somewhat stronger language "No other factor comes close" was the editor's, not mine.] Yes, the recession is certainly part of the explanation for the decline in emissions from 2007-09. But, no, the recession can't be the explanation for the continued decline since then, as the US economy has been expanding, especially relative to Europe. Like some of the others posting comments, you don't address the logic which I call virtually a proof, namely: (i) natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide of coal in power generation, (ii) the increased use of natural gas since 2007 has come at the expense of coal, (iii) shale gas is the reason for the increased use of natural gas. Which of those three steps in the argument do you disagree with? I can imagine other arguments, such as natural gas may come at the expense of solar power in the future, or methane leaks may offset reductions in carbon dioxide. But I don't see why you consider my opening paragraphs "unscientific", "credibility-damaging," or "shameless." Did you read the rest of the article?
      JF

  6. CommentedJustin Pearce

    I'm not in favour or against fracking in principle, but the risks of methane leakage during the process may result in a net increase in global warming potential even compared to the dirtiest coal. This is probably the biggest risk associated with fracking as far as I am concerned..
    While the metaphor of Viagra vs rhino horn may be evocative to the male baby-boomers reading this article, its really not an accurate representation of how a largely secretive and unregulated natural resource operation has set out to exploit the land before the people* have had a chance to see the full facts and science..

    *nb: if that even matters these days...

  7. CommentedKen Presting

    Prof. Frankel compares risk-aversion in fracking opponents to a preference for rhino horn over Viagra. But the issue of drug safety is not on his side. He has apparently forgotten the example of Thalidomide, once believed to be safe enough that pregnant women could use it to avoid morning sickness. In fact it was a powerful teratogen, causing birth defects that marked an entire generation.

    It is no intellectual achievement to demonstrate, as Frankel does in enormous length, that burning gas is not as harmful as burning coal. On the other hand, it is a propaganda bonanza for a Clinton adviser to come out for fracking while relegating water issues to a single paragraph and technology risk to a ridiculous joke.

    The principle of proving a new intervention to be both safe and effective before it is allowed onto the market is now a universally accepted rule in the health industry. To apply the same standard to environmental health is plain and simple common sense.

    Let me express sincere gratitude that Frankel is not denying climate change. He at least is among those of us who recognize that our species has grown powerful enough to cause change on a global scale. It is for precisely that reason we now need to be prudent with our technology, to a degree commensurate with the potential consequences.

    1. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      I do indeed remember Thalomide and I of course agree that drugs like Viagra need to be tested for safety and approved by regulators like the FDA. But the Europeans' application of the precautionary principle to GMOs, for example, goes beyond that level of science-based caution. In the case of fracking, the optimal degree of regulation is some point in the wide range in between outright banning (which some want) and outright laissez faire (which others want). I don't see why that should be such a controversial position.
      Jeff Frankel

  8. CommentedLindsay Wilson

    Actually, it is quite easy to argue there are three main causes, fracking, high oil prices and the recession. The rise of natural gas in the power sector is only good for only 40% of emissions cuts between 2005 and 2012, its good for a little more in industry. More than half the total cuts are attributable to rising oil prices and the recession, just look at the EIA data

    1. CommentedLindsay Wilson

      US emissions decline from 2005-2012 are attributable by sector. Power is good for 50% of total cuts, transport 26%, industry 14%, residential 8% and commercial 2%.

      Switching gas for coal in the power sector is only 40% of the explanation. Oil prices and lower industrial energy demand are large players.

      http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/us-carbon-emissions-decline

    2. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      Once again, neither the 2007-09 recession nor the big 2008 spike in oil prices can explain why US carbon emissions -- especially from coal -- are lower now than they were five years ago.
      JF

  9. Commentedr j sigmund

    methane is about 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 in the long term, but 72 times as potent over a 20 year horizon. and new charts show methane's global warming potential is more than 130 times that of carbon dioxide over a period of ten years...

    measurements at the wellhead show as much as 9% of the methane from fracked wells escapes into the atmosphere...

    according to the World Meteorological Organization's annual report on 2011 greenhouse gases, atmospheric methane hit a new high of about 1813 parts per billion (ppb) in 2011, which was 259% of the pre-industrial level; since CO2 levels were at 390.9 parts per million (ppm) in 2011, that means methane's net warming effect is already one-third that of CO2 over 20 years…

  10. CommentedMK Anon

    Thanks for the good article that put it in perspective,

    But what if all that was only a bubble and these number/prices didn't reflect the real extraction costs?

    http://mondediplo.com/2013/03/09gaz

  11. CommentedDaniel Nashid

    Or, massive economic contraction due to the financial crises.

    1. Portrait of Jeffrey Frankel

      CommentedJeffrey Frankel

      The massive economic contraction can explain what happened in 2008, but not what has happened since. US emissions continued to decline even after the recession ended, while EU emissions have risen despite growth that is slower than in the US.
      JF

Featured