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America’s Plan to Cut Carbon: Frack Now

As activists in Rio and around the world mourned the failure of yet another useless summit to do anything about climate change, good news on the CO2 front was coming from the country greens love to hate: the US.

While Europe has adopted a plethora of expensive laws without any significant effect on CO2 emissions, the US is substantially reducing its emissions even as air pollution levels drop. As a CNN report puts it:

Despite there being no real effort by Congress to address global warming and America’s longstanding reputation as an energy hog, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are falling.

The lackluster economy has something to do with it. But it doesn’t fully explain what’s happening. Consider that even factoring in a stronger economy, forecasters see greenhouse gas emissions continuing to fall.

It’s possible the country may meet its pledge to reduce emissions 17% by 2020.

The secret isn’t laws, green activism or regulations (although these do have roles to play). Innovation is the force that is enabling the cut in US carbon emissions. Specifically, the new ways of extracting natural gas that make have driven a natural gas boom in this country and dramatically cut the cost of the cleanest hydrocarbon energy source of them all.

What’s interesting is to compare the US performance with Europe. Europe has done many of the things greens want the US to do, but despite their “virtue” and our “sin”, the US is doing better than Europe at meeting key environmental goals. As CNN puts it:

Europe, by contrast, has seen its energy-sector carbon emissions remain basically flat. This despite the fact that most of Europe operates under a market-based cap-and-trade scheme where emissions are capped at a certain level and companies get tradable credits to emit pollution.

Plus, Europe has significantly higher taxes on energy.

Ignore the greens and innovate, and you will cut carbon. Pay a lot of attention to them, spend a lot of money — and you will keep carbon emissions unchanged.

The story of course is more complicated than this, and there are real environmental problems that come with fracking. Nevertheless, the one force capable of enabling human beings to have the kind of freedom and abundance that they want while preserving the planetary environment on which we all depend is innovation. Regulations and laws have their place, but they can only do so much.

Right now, fracking is doing more to control carbon emissions than all the efforts of all the greens in the world. And by promoting American (and Chinese!) domestic energy production, it is doing more to lay the foundations of world peace than all the peace activists and disarmament campaigners in the world. And by creating more well paid blue collar jobs both in gas and oil extraction and in the manufacturing industries that will grow to exploit the new cheap energy sources, fracking strengthens the American economy and the tax base, providing revenues for both federal and state governments.

Fracking is the left’s best friend.

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  • Mark in Texas

    One thing that could substantially reduce emissions of CO2 as well as other substances from our transportation fleet would be to eliminate the EPA regulations that make it uneconomical to convert existing vehicles to dual use gasoline and compressed natural gas operation. It costs about $1000 to $2000 to install a kit that allows an existing car or truck to run off of CNG but then flip a switch to run on gasoline if the CNG tank is empty. After complying with EPA regulations, the cost of installation rises to $20,000 to $25,000. It is a whole lot easier to justify a $2,000 investment to use cheaper fuel than $20,000.

  • Gary L.

    Fracking is the left’s best friend.

    Alas, it is destined to remain one of those unrequited relationships…..

  • Robert Hanson

    “there are real environmental problems that come with fracking”
    No one knows what they are, despite the desperate attempts of the Greens and the EPA to discredit the practice, no one has been able to find a shred of evidence of any “real” problems, all theoretical problems have been proven false. Yet surely, despite all evidence to the contrary over some 50 years if using this method of extraction, surely some problems must exist. It’s part of the Green Articles of Faith….

  • David Bennett

    Fracking is the left’s best friend.

    Or would be if the left was actually in favor of progress. I’m sure eventually they will love fracking because it will create a mountain of regulations and the bureaucracy to go along with them.

  • Mark Michael

    I must commend Prof. Mead & his interns for their many posts of this nature that point out that economic progress is the best counter to a (theoretical) AGW, since it will make those economies more efficient and better able to handle restrictions on energy use in the future.

    Sadly, I’ve noted that fewer and fewer leftists post comments under VM posts that make this point. The people who need to read these thoughts skip over them, I suspect. (I, for one, do not believe that man’s CO2’s emissions are anything more than a nuisance addition to our atmosphere’s greenhouse gas accumulation, unlike WRM, who’s still worried there’s something to the underlying science. But I’ll leave Prof Mead to his worry-wort nature. Hedging your bets is 2nd nature for a foreign policy guru, presumably….Why don’t I think it’s much of a concern? Easy. Cloud cover blocks more sunlight than any extra GHG’s add to the atmosphere’s heat accumulation capacity by huge amounts IMO. A 1% increase in cloud cover results in surprisingly lower temps. That is a “negative” feedback factor that helps cancel out the tiny manmade CO2 addition of heat. This has NOT been proven experimentally, yet, to the satisfaction of the pro-AGW climatologists, so they cling to their hope that this isn’t true.)

    We conservatives have desperately struggled with how can we convince some leftists that more decentralized economies are more efficient, more innovative, and (gasp!) result in greater material wealth at the lowest level of the income scale than do highly centralized economies.

    So far, no argument has worked. Facts don’t work. Experimental data showing that we’re right and they’re wrong hasn’t worked.

    I watched Jonathan Haidt being interviewed by Bill Moyers on his PBS Frontline TV show recently concerning his latest book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are divided by politics and religion” (c2012, Pantheon Books, NY). It intrigued me enough to buy the book. (Haven’t read it, yet.)

    Haidt is a big-time liberal who advised (I think) both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 for their presidential campaigns. So he’s not a dyed-in-the-wool dogmatic Austrian School limited-government person.

    The reviews of the book say that there are 5 factors that (nearly) everyone uses to evaluate the morality (“righteousness”) of society/culture:

    1. Compassion
    2. Fairness
    3. Loyalty
    4. Authority
    5. Sanctity

    Haidt claims that leftists overemphasize the first 3 factors, while conservatives tend to be more balanced. Conservatives give fairly equal weight to all 5 factors. (I repeat, I’ve not read the book, yet, so I don’t know how convincing a case he makes for this.) Here’s a link to Amazon for the book:

    I see it’s ranked 260 in all books on Amazon. It was published March 13th, so it’s been available for 3 months. That means he’s sold lots & lots of copies. It’s #1 under religion, church & state.

    I’d be curious to see what VM thinks about it. Has any member of the VM staff read it?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “The story of course is more complicated than this, and there are real environmental problems that come with fracking.”

    What environmental problems? There aren’t any. The shale rock formations the oil is in are non-porous that’s why fracking is necessary to begin with, in addition just drilling through the miles of rock to get to it is hugely expensive and difficult, so how is anything put down there ever going to get back out? As far as the toxicity of the chemicals used, are they more toxic than the crude oil there already? The trillions of barrels of toxic crude oil under the ground don’t seem to bother the environmentalists, why should mixing it with some other toxic stuff worry them?

    The Greens hate people (excepting themselves of course), want them all exterminated, and will grab onto any excuse that will further that goal.

    I on the other hand believe that the Humano-centric ecology is Mother Nature’s greatest achievement.

  • The Reticulator

    I get that burning natural gas is cleaner. But I don’t get how that means less CO2. If you oxidize hydrocarbons, you get CO2 and water, right? What has changed about that?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @The Reticulator: apparently, less CO2 is given off per unit of energy — about 30% less than oil and 45% less than coal.

  • Kim Feil

    If you don’t believe in global warming being manmade then this is the cure all article for you. Otherwise the methane losses from natural gas can be from 2 to 8% for the life cycle of the “cleaner burning” fossil fuel. Methane is exponentially more warming than c02, but science doesn’t weigh in for this article obviously. But aside from our reduction in co2, lets talk about the build out of fracking sites that google earth uncovers. Just knowing that those near these drill sites get to breathe fracking silica dust and NBTEX during flowback (before the Green Compeltions equipment that will not be mandated for at least antoher two years), air pollution from the extraction is so unAmerican but sacrificial lambs we are. Then there is the manmade earthquakes from the waste disposal…surely those won’t hurt the casings that protect out groundwater…and surely that dement lasts forever…no SCP sustained casing pressure issues are non-existent…right?

  • Kim Feil Here is proof that supports my comment that will probably not be posted.

  • John D. Rockefeller’s Ghost

    Speaking of innovation changing our green calculus…Not only did I reduce the global carbon footprint more than anyone, ever, by making home heating oil inexpensive, I also saved the whales by making kerosene inexpensive. Beat that greenies.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Once again illustrating the point the Left is NOT about helping the environment or helping poor people or any “good” cause. The Left IS all about whipping up crises that they claim cannot be solved by the current system and thus is a pretext for THEM to have more control. Once you realize that, everything else is easy.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Fracking pollutes the ground water. It should be stopped immediately. How do I know? My Australian Green friends solemnly assure me of it. I don’t think the readers of this blog understand the world-historical role of the United States which is to utterly destroy itself so it can go down in history as the naughtiest country ever. Fracking, I tell you, is an affront to truth and beauty – to the Good itself. Stop it now before it does some ….good.

  • econrob

    I just do not see what the problem is with CO2 beyond emotions.

    Could someone explain to me why we give one whit about “CO2 emissions”?

    If we decided we wanted to raise the temperature of the planet a few degrees (warmer is far better than cooler) just how much CO2 would we have to produce?

    There is plenty of evidence that the planet has had dramatic climatic swings way before man.

    Just how much CO2 is emitted by forrest fires now that we are pretty successful in suppressing vs. 200 years ago when they would burn for months on end?

    I see no science that answers the fundamental questions of natural climate change and exactly what is going on in nature now.

    Worrying about man’s CO2 production effects on the climate are a bit like smashing out the windshield because a squashed bug is hurting aerodynamics.

    Indeed, if, and it is a huge if, man’s CO2 is having a material effect on climate to the warmer, it could be in fact staving off a new ice age.

  • Tununak

    I’m no leftist, but is there any reason to believe that innovation would always take us to energy sources that give off less CO2? Isn’t this simply a serendipitous outcome?

  • willis

    “I’m no leftist, but is there any reason to believe that innovation would always take us to energy sources that give off less CO2? Isn’t this simply a serendipitous outcome?”

    Let’s go back to burning trees.

  • Brenda

    Mark in Texas at 2:17. Thanks for answering a question my husband has been asking for a long time. We’d love to know the specifics of the EPA regulations if you have that info or know where we can find it.

  • Marty

    A few years ago there was a very interesting book, “The Bottomless Well” by Peter Huber and Markl Mills, which I highly recommend. Among other things, they pointed out that the long-term, multi-century trend has been to move towards fuels that are inherently less polluting, and even as the total BTUs soars to produce less emission and more stable, usable power–from dung to wood to peat to coal to oil to NG to nuclear. This trend is based on a logical progression in what people need and our ability to get there. I simplify somewhat, but the next move should be from coal (stationary) and oil (transport) to nuclear (stationary) and NG (transport), and the greens want to skip that step and go to renewables, even though the economically viable technology does not exist, therefore creating huge expense and uncertain (unlikely?) success even if all the money is spent.

  • Ken Hahn

    As the green aristocracy gathers in Rio, we have to remember what this is really about. It is their right to inhabit five star resorts in exotic locations, to eat filet mignon and escargot at the expenses of working people, particularly Americans, that is threatened. Bureaucrats and “experts” might have to find real jobs or pay for their own entertainment without the green movement.
    The whole deal is a fraud. It simply provides power and luxury to a class of parasites.

  • Lee Reynolds

    Faux environmentalism is nothing more than Marxism through other means. This is why they are violently opposed to anything that actually helps the environment without promoting communism. Meanwhile things that destroy economic freedom and foster dependence upon the state, but do nothing to protect our environment, they’re rabidly in favor of.

  • Foobarista

    Tunanuk: yes, there is. Generally, pollution is a product of inefficiency and ultimately more polluting fuels are more expensive. More efficient methods of producing energy are less polluting in numerous ways. Basically, the “lowest tech” method of producing energy was burning wood, which is extremely “polluting” in terms of smoke and land use. Other low-tech methods such as burning animal dung aren’t much better and certainly don’t scale well. (If you’re into CO2 emissions counting, burning surface fuels is “neutral” since the CO2 was already on the surface, but other factors matter too.)

    “Middle-tech” such as burning coal produces more energy by weight than any of the low tech methods, and is less impactful on the environment since a coal mine are much smaller than a forest producing an equivalent amount of energy by burning.

    Gas and oil are even more “eco-friendly” per unit volume, and natgas is the best of all of the fossil fuels.

    In terms of non-CO2-emitting energies, the ultimate best is nuclear, which is far better than large-scale wind and solar, which require lots of land. All you need is relatively small mine operations and the plants themselves.

  • MarkL

    I think Via Media is making a very lazy pass at even-handedness with the comment that, “there are real environmental problems that come with fracking.” We have fraced more than 1 million wells over 60 years. Where are the problems? Just name one. This is true even in Dimock, Pennsylvania, the town highlighted in Gaslands. Pennsylvania’s DEP is adamant that the problem was unrelated to fracing. There is no point giving the green left an easy pass on this point. 1 million frac jobs is a lot of data.

  • Kris

    Kim@9, you’ve convinced me (after I managed to decipher your comment): natural gas and fracking are just too dangerous. I will thus be promoting greater usage of coal.

  • Stayed Awake in Chemistry

    The Reticulator asked: “I get that burning natural gas is cleaner. But I don’t get how that means less CO2. If you oxidize hydrocarbons, you get CO2 and water, right? What has changed about that??

    Burning coal gives off more carbon dioxide than burning natural gas, because coal is almost pure carbon. So burning it produces almost all CO2 and very little H2O. On the other hand, natural gas (methane) is CH4, so burning it produces lots of H2O.

    C + O2 ==> CO2
    CH4 + 2O2 ==> CO2 + 2H2O

  • Bernie

    OK, you econuts! When are you going to call for the worldwide banning of carbonated beverages? And welding? And breathing? Each exhalation produces .004% to .006% CO2 per breath.

  • John A

    Does anyone else remember that by 2006 the USA had bettered what would have been the CO2-emission goal for 2012 under Kyoto I? Just about the only other to do that was Germany, and that is mostly because the re-unification took place during the run of Kyoto I and the East German power plants were shut down.

    Fracking opens up enormous new fields all ocer the world, not just the USA. OK, it is still “fossil” fuel and gets burned, producing CO2. But it can be used NOW: solar and wind are mostly not in any appreciable amount 24/7, and storage of energy produced during peak output is not easily stored. They are useful in some locales (“off-shore wind” = ocean states where wind may be practical, but Kansas?)

    Personally. I would like to see nuclear fusion rather than current fission. Nut I know that is a looooong way off. What could be done now, though, is to re-visit the “waste storage problem” by dropping the old SALT agreement(s) that promised the “waste” would not be re-processed because the re-processing would yield not only Uranium (for A bombs) but also Plutonium (for H bombs.)

  • Warren

    So, to cut down on water usage from flushing my toilet, Ill just come and [defecate] in your yard and house.

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