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).

The same report says natural gas may actually be competing with renewables, rather than helping to create a smooth transition to wind and solar. “Preliminary analysis suggests that access to investment capital for renewables may be tighter due to competition from gas,” says the report.

Investing in natural gas could postpone our transition to renewable energy. The IEA’s Energy Technology Perspective 2012 suggests that spending money on natural-gas infrastructure might actually delay efforts to curb climate change, committing the economy to longer-term dependence on fossil fuels than is necessary:

The specific emissions from a gas-fired power plant will be higher than average global CO2 intensity in electricity generation by 2025, raising questions around the long-term viability of some gas infrastructure investment if climate change objectives are to be met. If near-term infrastructure development does not sufficiently consider technical flexibility, future adaptation to lower-carbon fuels and technologies will be more difficult to achieve.

Fracking threatens water resources in an increasingly water-scarce world. The toll fracking takes on water supplies makes unconventional natural gas a dubious energy source for a warming world, where droughts are more common in some regions. Fracking uses 70–140 billion gallons of water every year, according to the EPA. Currently, nearly half of fracking industry wells are located in parts of the country facing high water stress, based on a report by the organization CERES.

—It’s not clear whether natural gas is actually as clean as it claims to be. Some analyses suggest that methane emissions at fracking sites make unconventional natural gas more polluting than coal.

Some of fracking’s worst environmental impacts could be reduced. A report by the IEA last year offered guidelines for the fracking industry to curb greenhouse gas emissions, water demand and pollution problems. That, of course, would require new regulations.

Many analysts, including the IEA, acknowledge that the natural gas economy isn’t going to disappear soon. But full-bore, large-scale investment in natural gas fracking may not lessen our climate change problems (even if the industry stopped fouling or overusing water supplies). According to economic forecasts by the Canadian think tank Pembina Institute, policies to rein in climate change (such as carbon taxes or fees) might decrease North America’s reliance on natural gas and certainly would not boost it significantly. Moreover, Pembina argues that we don’t need more natural gas to transition to wind and solar. Energy grids can use “smart” technology that manages and integrates different power sources until we build technologies to store energy generated by renewable sources.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly suggested that the US is mining more coal than ever. This has been changed to reflect the fact that, in 2012, the US exported more coal than ever.

New Yorkers love their tap water. Allison Kilkenny writes about the activists trying to protect our taps from the environmentally consequences of fracking.