April 2nd, 2013
New technology for releasing gas bubbles trapped in shale rock has created a bonanza in several states. Are we entering a golden age that restores American manufacturing competitiveness and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, or are we creating environmental and health problems with a fuel that’s neither cleaner nor cheaper than what it’s replacing?
Mark Zoback, professor at Stanford University School of Earth Sciences, believes that hydraulic fracturing can serve as a bridge to a renewable energy future, but only if it’s done responsibly. “Right now there are about 20K wells a year that are drilled horizontally and then hydraulically fractured. Each well has between about 5 and 15 hydraulic fractures on average, so there’s roughly 200K hydraulic fractures carried out every year.” He sees the market impact as “remarkable” at the local and state level, creating both jobs and tax revenues. On the national level, he said, “people are talking about a manufacturing renaissance in the Midwest.” He went on to say that American consumers are paying one-third for natural gas of what they were paying before the large-scale production of shale gas, and that CO2 emissions from coal are down 20% in the last few years. “All of the other pollution and health problems associated with coal are also diminishing thanks to the increased use of natural gas. So there are many positive benefits. But there are also environmental impacts.” One of the problems is that states are responsible for regulating fracking; some are doing it better than others.
Addressing the environmental impacts, Kassie Siegel, senior counsel at Climate Law Institute Center for Biological Diversity, agreed that the fracking boom has transformed the economy, but at an unacceptable price. “The fact is that fracking poisons our air and our water, and it brings terribly intense industrial development to previously peaceful communities.” She went on to say, “The nature of shale development is that you have to drill many wells, and to keep up production you have to keep drilling more wells. It’s conventional development on steroids.” She also said that it is not the climate-friendly fuel it’s promoted to be. “It’s not a bridge to a clean energy future. It’s actually a bridge to extreme climate disruption.” She believes we should ban fracking.
TJ Glauthier, former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Energy and former board member of Union Drilling, said that natural gas has an important role to play in a cleaner economy and a cleaner future, but it has to be well regulated. “We need to regulate each stage of what we’re doing—the actual drilling operations, the fluids being used for fracking, the production process, and go right through each of these areas. I think it’s possible to do it in a way that’s responsible and safe and will help us move ahead to an appropriate future.”
Siegel said that the solutions have been around for years, but we haven’t adopted them. “So I don’t think you can use the fact that we could clean up oil and gas as an excuse from getting policy changes that we really need to drive us off of fossil fuels.” She referred to a current draft rulemaking by the Bureau of Land Management, which adopts “almost none” of the recommendations of the Shale Gas Subcommittee, on which Zoback served. Siegel said, “If an oil and gas company claims that the chemicals used in fracking are a trade secret, they don’t even have to give us the information. We know how to clean it up and we’ve known how to clean it up for years, but it hasn’t happened.”
According to Zoback, natural gas doesn’t make any sense if we’re not going to be decarbonizing the energy system further. “We have to have incentives in place, programs in place so that we can transition in an economically viable and socially acceptable way from fossil fuels to renewables. And we all should see that roadmap. And we should know where we are on that road.”