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A green case for fracking

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Back in 2007, energy companies first began to realize that the United States contained vast supplies of natural gas trapped in underground shale-rock formations, which they could unlock through new fracking and horizontal drilling techniques.

At the time, some environmentalists hailed this as a major green breakthrough. After all, natural gas is much cleaner than coal, which had been America's dominant power source for decades. Burning gas for electricity instead of coal led to fewer particulates in the air, less smog, and less planet-warming carbon dioxide. Robert F. Kennedy touted shale gas as key to ending the nation's "deadly coal addiction."

In the years since, Kennedy's statement has proved prescient. With the rise of fracking in Texas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and elsewhere, US natural gas production has surged, and many electric utilities have been switching from coal to cheaper natural gas. The Sierra Club embarked on a wildly successful campaign to convince utility regulators to retire hundreds of now-uneconomical coal plants. America's carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 10 percentsince 2005 (though shale gas only deserves part of the credit for that).

Yet even as this was all unfolding, environmentalists were quickly souring on the fracking boom.

They certainly had their reasons. Fracking involves injecting water, chemicals, and sand deep underground at high pressures to crack open gas-rich rock — and there was growing concern that this process could contaminate nearby drinking water supplies. (The EPA has documented some instances of water contamination, though it hasn't found evidence that this is widespread.) Green groups also worried that the methane leaks from fracking operations could partly or even totally undermine the climate benefits from switching to gas.

These days, it's tough to find an environmental group that supports fracking. Many groups now favor outright bans on the practice — a stance that New York state adopted last fall. The Environmental Defense Fund has argued that it's better to focus on improving oversight and patching those methane leaks. But if anything, EDF is an outlier.

The green argument for fracking — political economy is key

With that context in mind, it's worth reading this long new essay in Democracy Journal by Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Levi essentially argues that environmentalists should rethink their opposition. Fracking and shale gas can still play an important role in killing off coal and easing the transition to a clean-energy future:

[C]ontrary to what environmental advocates increasingly claim, abundant shale gas can be integral to a serious climate-change policy agenda. Plentiful (and thus inexpensive) gas makes it cheaper to deliberately wean the country off of coal—which accounts for three-quarters of carbon dioxide produced in U.S. electricity generation—and thus to reduce emissions.

Cheaper policies are, for the most part, politically easier to enact. Moreover, as long as a shift from coal to gas is driven by well-designed policy rather than only by markets, increased use of gas isn’t in danger of cancelling out the benefits of shifting away from coal. ...

The boom also changes the politics of energy production in a way that should help emissions-cutting efforts. .... Politicians who campaign on climate policy that boosts gas at the expense of coal in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio—as well as any national candidate who needs to win votes in those states—will have a compelling story to tell that goes well beyond the need to confront climate change.

Levi is making an often-overlooked point about political economy here. As numerous studies have found, fracking alone won't fix climate change — even if natural gas is cleaner than coal, it's still a fossil fuel. Ultimately, to avert global warming, we'll have to move past natural gas to even cleaner sources of energy. That's something that politicians like Jeb Bush miss when they suggest that fracking, by itself, can be a solution to climate change.

What abundant shale gas can do, however, is pave the way for climate policies that gradually reduce emissions over time and help nurture even cleaner sources.

Arguably, the fracking boom has made it much easier for the Obama administration to design its big forthcoming EPA rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants — because the availability of shale gas makes compliance cheaper. What's more, the fracking boom is sharply eroding the political power of coal companies, which have long been a major opponent of climate policies.

There's a lot more to Levi's essay, which is worth reading in full. He argues that many of the local problems with fracking (like water and air pollution) can be fixed with smarter regulations. He argues that even the high-end estimates of methane leakage still don't make natural gas worse for climate change than coal, although those methane leaks should certainly be plugged up. He also argues that at this point in time, widespread bans on fracking are more likely to redound to coal's benefit than to the benefit of renewable energy.

Whether you find this argument convincing will likely depend on lots of things. Many green groups have been skeptical that it's actually possible to regulate an industry that often bitterly resists oversight. Others worry about lock-in effects — the idea that if the gas industry becomes more dominant, it might eventually use its political clout to fight the transition to even cleaner sources of energy, much the way coal once did. Suffice to say, this debate isn't going away anytime soon.

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