An oil drilling rig in Kansas. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
In North Dakota, the center of the one of the nation’s biggest fracking booms, you can see the gas flares burning for miles on a cloudy day. “It looks like huge candlesticks,” an activist told me two years ago, when I was reporting on the first round of protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, DC. The activist was in tears because a friend had been killed in a crash with a fracking-industry truck. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing (a process used to extract natural gas or oil that can’t be accessed via conventional drilling) brings up innumerable safety and health issues. It can leave arsenic and other pollutants in the groundwater, guzzle water resources, lead to an increase in truck traffic and accidents, and even trigger earthquakes.
So is there such a thing as “responsible development of natural gas,” in the words of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new chief, Gina McCarthy—especially when the expansion of gas implies an increase in fracking?
At a speech yesterday in Denver, McCarthy claimed natural gas is “an important part of our work to curb climate change and support a robust clean energy market at home,” according to The Hill. Natural gas-fired power produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal. But as an alleged climate solution, fracking is, like nuclear power, a devil’s bargain. One has to hold one’s nose and hope that the problems of the extraction process either can be solved or are outweighed by the greater good of reducing emissions. Obama’s June speech on climate change acknowledged that gas extraction is controversial:
And, again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.
Some environmental groups—along with commentators like Thomas Friedman—have also touted fracking as solution to climate change—an important transition fuel that temporarily feeds our energy needs while we make the switch to renewables. Friedman says we are witnessing “the natural gas revolution,” a “potential game changer for the economy, environment and our national security.”
The question remains, is fracking a climate solution or just a greenwashed version of “drill, baby, drill”? In the last two years, reports, models, and studies of natural gas extraction paint a less rosy picture. A number of think tanks and analysts are cautious, even pessimistic, about natural gas. Following are the main reasons:
—Fracking may not decrease our reliance on coal globally. It just sends the coal somewhere else. Guardian editor and energy researcher Duncan Clark recently crunched some numbers on coal and natural gas extraction. While American coal use has dropped in recent years (letting the United States claim that we’ve reduced our emissions), in 2012, we exported more of it than ever. Last year, for instance, Europe imported more American coal, leading to “a corresponding dramatic increase in coal generation” there, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).