Ask a green what he or she thinks about fracking, and you’re likely to get an earful of criticism about methane leaks, poisoned groundwater, and climate change disaster. But a new report from the ecologically minded Breakthrough Institute (BI) makes the case that shale gas actually has a net environmental benefit. Nevermind the boosts to our energy security, and economy that fracking provides; the controversial drilling process is worth embracing on green merits alone.
Natural gas’s biggest green qualification is the extent to which it displaces coal as an energy source. Burning coal emits roughly twice as much greenhouse gas into the air as natural gas. Thanks to the shale boom, we’re getting less of our electricity from coal-fired power plants and more from natural gas. The BI notes, “From 2008 to 2012, annual coal consumption for US electric power declined, on average, by 50 million tons.” That’s something greens should be cheering, and it’s mostly thanks to fracking.
But natural gas doesn’t just beat coal on carbon emissions. The BI explains why, at the local level, shale gas does less harm than coal:
The environmental and community impacts of shale fracking are reliably far more modest than those created by coal mining and production. Whereas coal mining removes entire mountains and contaminates streams with hazardous waste, natural gas drill pads occupy only a few hundred square feet, and there are only a handful of cases of groundwater contamination by fracking chemicals. Whereas innovation in coal mining resulted in greater landscape degradation, innovation in gas fracking has resulted in less-toxic fracking chemicals, fewer drill pads, and better drilling practices.
It seems pretty straightforward at this point: the more natural gas we burn, the less coal we burn. That leads to lower carbon emissions and less harm to the environment and local communities.
Many greens have one final quibble: that the increased share of shale gas in our energy mix will come at the expense of the fledgling solar and wind industries.
Breakthrough has an answer for that as well. Gas plants are a lot cheaper to build than coal plants, and cheaper to scale up if needed. Surprisingly, this is actually good news for solar and wind energy. When the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, we need other sources of energy. Coal plants have high capital costs: they’re generally much more expensive than natural gas plants, which means, once built, they’re going to stay online as long as possible to recoup that initial investment. Natural gas plants are cheaper to build, so there’s less of a need to keep them on when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. In that sense, natural gas makes our power supply more flexible and boosts the viability of renewable energy sources.
Despite all of this, the green camp is firmly entrenched in its opposition to shale gas. No matter that shale gas displaces dirty-burning coal; it’s still a fossil fuel, and its emissions aren’t zero. But the world isn’t black and white, and the fact that greens can’t see in shades of gray means that they will continue to be forced to sit out serious energy policy debates. In a perfect world, we would be able to harness the power of the wind and the sun cheaply, consistently, and efficiently, but the technology isn’t there yet. Shale gas is a viable option, and a relatively green one at that.
[Oil rig image and plant image courtesy of Shutterstock]