On Fracking…

Over at Reason and Politics, there was a really nice post about the use of shale gas as a short-term solution to reducing GHG emissions.  You can see the really nice post for my initial comment.  As we are finding out in Connecticut, there is a concerted national effort to get shale gas (the kind of gas you get from hydaulic fracturing, or fracking, the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from upstate New York to West Virginia) on tap as a way to displace, for instance, fuel oil for space heating and light industrial/commercial needs.  This approach does have the potential to reduce GHG emissions and other pollutants on a BTU basis.  It will also generate jobs, though they are likely to be gone in 10-15 years once the gas distribution expansion is finished.  Its success also depends on the long-term costs and availability of natural gas regardless of its source.  All said, it can be seen as a placeholder/transition program until renewable energy technology can step in.  And before we go too far down that road, I prefer to immediately cease all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and move them directly to renewable energy R&D and manufacturing.  That said, and regardless of its merit, I don’t have a billion dollars worth of government subsidy money that I can now use to hire lobbyists to ensure I get billions more in government subsidies… alas… the subsidy merry-go-round is not meant for chumps like me.  If only I had a lobbyist…. oh, yeah, right, congress…

So here, friends, is an open comment to R&P, instead of just posting another comment on their blog:

First, I really enjoy your blog.  It is as advertised, and you do a great job of bringing reason to political discussion.  Second, the risks of fracking are what they are… drilling through aquifers to get to to deep shale gas is always going to create a potential for contamination of the aquifer.  There are parallels to the mechanics of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but the potential disaster in a fracking scenario could make that look like a walk in the park.  The risks are made worse by the failings of the US legal and regulatory systems.  There is simply too much palm greasing going on (see the subsidy merry-g0-round above) to effectively address things like safety and legal responsibility.  The US EPA has done things like requiring/allowing MTBE as a gasoline additive, which had the predictable side-effect of massively increasing the area impacted by a leaking fuel tank, and making the spill much harder to remediate (has a lot to do with MTBE having a high solubility in water), and allowing much higher public exposure to the pollutants the EPA is supposed to regulate.  And when I say predictable, I mean Chem101 predictable, not Nobel Prize predictable.  So I think it is fair to say that in the big picture we can’t rely on US EPA for anything, and I deal with their programs every day as part of my job.  I think the problem with energy and environmental policy in the US, if not the world, is that to get the job done right you have to be really effective at integrated long-range planning, and have effective regulations, and effective enforcement, and effective interface with economic policies.  And as if it weren’t hard enough, those things simply will not happen when you are having a multi-decade political slap fight… as we are finding out in the good old U S of A.  A common sense approach would use sound science, and lead to a pricing method that didn’t give the fossil fuel, nuclear, automotive, etc… industries a free ride on their social costs, not to mention the massive subsidies that these companies receive on the front end.

In short, we are screwed until we get adults in the room, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.


5 responses to “On Fracking…

  1. Let me first commend you on an excellent response to my article. Very nicely done. I’d also like to thank you as these sorts of discussions are the very reason I created Reasoning Politics to begin with.

    Now, I wont insult you by attempting to refute the risks you’ve clearly laid out. I agree with you on all these points although we may disagree on the sheer amount of risk involved, which is difficult to quantify. I know firsthand the dangers of fracking: my hometown is Youngstown, Ohio (although I live in Denver now), which experienced man-made earthquakes due to the proper and lawful disposal of fracking fluids. Being form the Rust Belt I am also familiar with the amount of environmental damage industry is capable of.

    That being being said, in my post, I expressed support for fracking primarily because it reduces the price of natural gas and therefore reduces greenhouse gas emissions. To put it another way: the potential risks of global warming concern me more than the potential risks of fracking, including aquifer contamination. It is very much a “lesser of two (or more) evils” type opinion.

    The more I learn (and I am far from an expert) about environmental issues the more I learn that there are no easy answers. Sometimes one must choose from the “least bad” option. In this case, based on the evidence I have seen, fracking presents a lesser danger than climate change. This is a perfect case where new evidence must change one’s mind. That possibility is likely as more studies regarding fracking will certainly be forthcoming in the future.

    Natural gas is certainly not the only tool I advocate against climate change, I also fully support a carbon tax, something I have written about on Reasoning Politics several times.

    What ideas have interested you in the transition to renewable energy? Do you feel there is a better path than natural gas? I look forward to continuing this discussion.


    • Josh, right back at ya. Glad to be able to contribute with a decent comment.

      The main advantage of natural gas, from an air pollution and GHG standpoint is less CO2 and less pollutants (sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, etc…) per BTU. At the consumer end, using the example of space heating, it is common to get higher efficiency gas furnaces at lower costs compared to heating oil. Natural gas is also cheaper on a BTU basis. Conversion costs aside you might see a 60% reduction in winter heating bills between natural gas and #2 oil. On the downside fossil fuel extraction carries the risk/reality of methane release, which is a more potent GHG than CO2, and fracked gas is no different. It also may require the construction of a lot of new underground distribution, which is done using diesel powered equipment. It is also carried in pipelines that can leak, and the released gas is a combination of GHGs and VOCs. So like any fuel it has pros and cons and you are still involved in fossil fuel extraction. And just for the icing on the GHG cake, remember that all this CO2 was once atmospheric carbon, and putting it back into the atmosphere is bad for a lot of reasons that go well beyond sea level and ice caps. So more CO2 is still more CO2.

      All of which equals me agreeing that there are no easy answers. BUT, there is a love affair with old technology (easy answers) that is currently holding full sway over the world’s largest economies. Where it used to be taken as gospel that the new technological breakthrough was the key to making a fortune, it turns out that it is much easier and more profitable to deal in old technology. That is why it is virtually impossible to root out old technologies like the internal combustion engine. There is a shadow economy built around the internal combustion engine, from automaker subsidies, fuel subsidies, gasoline distribution networks, filling stations, auto dealerships, auto repair, spare parts, wrecking yards, scrap metal… which is turned into new cars and new engines, and so on. Now try to insert a new technology into that economy. It is immediately expected to compete with existing technology on price, performance, range, and convenience. It also has to attempt to hop onto the lobbyist merry-go-round!

      That same dynamic exists in both the transition to cleaner fuels, and more-so the transition to non-fossil energy sources. So the ideas that interest me in any kind of technology transition is how the inertia/momentum of an entrenched technology is overcome, more than the actual new technology in question. New technologies are everywhere, but the gap between VC startup funding and the kind of Federal subsidies given to the auto industry and the fossil fuel industry is like the difference between an Estes rocket and a Saturn V. “Enjoy your toy rocket, but stay out of the blast zone when we light the candle on this sucka.”

      Which brings me to a good solution: A Real Space Program. Even in our space programs we are coasting on old technology. Sure, you get some neat composites and some interesting computing solutions, but it is really a lot of honing existing concepts more than really new technology. The technological tsunami that came from the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program, or the Space Shuttle, is now 30 to 50 to 70 years past. A lot of this austerity/budget-cutting and privatization is selling the co-benefit side of space programs very short. Not only would it be better to be spending real money on non-fossil energy R&D for terrestrial use, it could be done as part of a space program and co-opted for terrestrial use. No matter how you slice it we are running a lot of old technology into the ground and the economic cost of that shortsightedness is real. Want to know why the LHC is important to the public at large? Energy. Want to know why we should be concerned about the backsliding of high tech education in the US? Energy. Want to reverse that? Get a real space program running again, and watch it pay out for the next 50 years. So there it is. Space.


  2. Reblogged this on Reason and Politics and commented:
    Pete Brunelli and I have an interesting conversation about fracking’s dangers and the possibility of fighting climate change.

  3. Right on. Very reasonable. Methane is 25% worse [100yr GWP is 25x, not 25%, that of CO2] for Global Warming than is CO2. The well sites and the gas pipeline leak methane all over the place (besides blowing up – witness West Virginia yesterday). And where I live the methane produced will be radioactive (people here have to ventilate their basements to lower radon levels which causes lung cancer.. – that’s what will be heating people’s homes. Say no to fossil fuels before we burn up the earth.