When discussions about the imperative to lower greenhouse gases turn to the subject of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, tensions get white hot. Opponents cite the horrors of gas and oil fracking — from flare-ups in upper respiratory ailments and skin rashes, to videos where water is set on fire coming directly from the tap due to the methane and other gases seeping out. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry eager to capitalize on the bonanza, defend fracking as way to lower greenhouse gases and bolster the US economy by lessening the nation’s dependency on foreign energy. When done right, they argue, the technique is clean and safe. Truth be told, both sides need to dial back the rhetoric and find more balance.
The US has over 1,500 coal-fired plants. Hundreds of them are being shut down due to the switch to natural gas and renewable energy. Renewables are the future, but today they account for only 12% of US electric power production, including the older hydropower plants built in the 1930s and 50s. Thus, natural gas is a bridge fuel offering half the carbon emissions of coal.
Greenhouse gas emissions are already having deleterious impacts on the environment in the form of water shortages, heat waves, droughts and other climatic events. Their reduction is beneficial to human health and the natural environment. The success of acid rain- and ozone-reduction programs have shown that emissions can be lowered in an economic way where society shares the costs of a cleaner environment.
Much opposition has flared in recent years against oil and gas fracking, which uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack open rock formations thousands of feet underground to release trapped oil and gas. Critics say that fracking could lead to water contamination, deplete groundwater levels, increase health problems and earthquake activity. The growth of fracking activity has led to calls for more regulation with ballot initiatives and other grass roots opposition around the country.
The economic truth, however, is that jobs are being created in the US energy industry that benefit Americans, in the form of cheaper and cleaner energy as well as aiding economic recovery by creating jobs and decreasing the US dependency on foreign oil.
That is not to say there are not risks involved in producing and transporting energy. There are risks involved in producing any hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas or coal) as well as renewable energy sources. But these risks need to be balanced in terms of benefits to society as well as balanced with environmental concerns.
A new documentary film, Breaking Free, engages many of the criticisms directed toward oil and gas fracking by highlighting the issues of water contamination and perceived increased seismic activity. Experts from the Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Strategic and International Studies, UC Berkeley, Native Americans, and others present their views on hydraulic fracking. The film has six segments including a community focus of ministers, teachers, local government and citizens, an illustration of the drilling process, the history of drilling, the environmental impacts, seismic issues, and economic impacts on local, state and federal levels. The film will be released to the public this fall.
The larger issue on hydraulic fracking is that the US is now on a path to cleaner energy. Already US oil demand has peaked and is declining due to the Obama Administration’s Corporate Fuel Economy Standards that will make cars much more energy efficient with a goal of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025. This goal is being obtained by the move to hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, compressed natural gas vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. US electric power stations are now being targeted with a reduction of 30% of their greenhouse gas emissions proposed by the Obama Administration by 2030.
Cleaner air and cleaner water have both health care benefits as well as economic benefits due to the employment of people in these industries and lower long-term healthcare costs. The challenges for American industry are to meet mandated goals set by government at the state and federal levels. California has set the highest reduction in greenhouse gas on the planet with a 25% reduction of greenhouse gases from 1990s levels. That will be met from renewable energy, energy efficiency and the increased use natural gas in power generation.
The point is that a balance must be set of economic growth, environmental concerns, and use of new technology to achieve greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The argument needs to move to one where economics and the environment go hand-in-hand and are not adversarial.Peter C. Fusaro is Chairman of Global Change Associates, an energy and environmental consultancy in New York City. Throughout his career Peter has been involved in energy projects: he helped the Environmental Protection Agency take the lead out of gasoline, has co-written on EIS on LNG safety and siting, helped create the first energy efficiency programs for gas and electricity in NYC, worked on the development of the Toyota Prius, and worked on greenhouse gas emissions.