mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Why Don't Greens Like Shale?


Greens used to like gas, but something about the shale boom soured them on the energy source. What happened? The Wall Street Journal reports:

For years, environmental groups saw gas as something of an ally in the cause. Gas has half the carbon footprint of coal. It was the ideal substitute for coal and a “bridge” to greater use of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

But as shale gas production soared, the price of natural gas plummeted. Environmental groups now worry that gas is moving in to stay, taking the momentum out of the shift to nonpolluting renewables, slowing conservation, and creating new environmental problems.

So what changed the minds of greens? Well, there are a number of complaints. One of the most common boils down to a Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) sentiment: local stakeholders resent the sudden influx of oil and gas wells and their attendant nuisances (like trucks and drilling equipment). There are valid concerns about these disruptions, which individual communities must resolve themselves. But in the US, at least, landowners own the mineral rights to the resources directly under their property and drillers compensate them for access to shale energy.

Many greens have griped about methane leakage in the shale gas drilling process. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere. A study released in 2011 purported to show that because of methane leakage natural gas is worse for the climate than coal, which sent environmentalists into high dudgeon. But since its release, that study has wilted under the scrutiny of peer review, having made many “unsupportable assumptions.”

Fine, greens will say, maybe natural gas is better for our climate than coal. But shale gas is still a fossil fuel, and to the extent that it displaces renewables like wind and solar, it’s bad for the environment. While this contention is the greens’ most reasonable (that’s not saying very much), it doesn’t hold up either. Here’s why: natural gas plants are much cheaper to build than coal-fired plants, and cheaper to scale up as needed. Coal plants, once built, are going to burn as much coal as they can, for as long as they can, to recoup their high capital investment. That makes them ill-suited as complements to intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind, which need some other energy source to supply the grid power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Cheaper gas plants have less imperative to run 24/7. In that sense, natural gas doesn’t inhibit the growth of renewables; it enables it.

Any kind of drilling entails risks; a recent study on earthquakes caused by fracking is troubling, and a recent fire on an offshore natural gas rig stresses the need for smart regulation to minimize these dangers. But many greens seem incapable of seeing the rewards that come along with these risks. There’s a balance to be struck here, and unfortunately the most passionate voices on the issue seem to have deserted that middle ground.

[Oil rig image and plant image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Alexander Scipio

    Greens began disliking NG as soon as it became inexpensive and available. Before then they liked it because they never thought it’d be a threat to windmills & unicorns. Now that it is, they are back in their Luddite shells.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Precisely right. Between the anticapitalists (who reject the notion that anyone should ever profit fromt anything) and the Luddites (who desparately long for a world free of those nasty machines and technology), the Greens will only embrace a technology that is guaranteed to be a) impractical; b) unprofitable; c) unavailable; and d) inadequate. Since Fracking has been shown to be none of those things (perfect it is not, but clearly it is quite suitable), they now oppose it.

      • Corlyss

        I love it. May I quote your four green criteria for energy?

        • f1b0nacc1

          Of course…and thank you for your kind remark!

    • bigfire

      Greens supports any form of energy except the ones that works. It’s a religious dogma, so explaination isn’t necessary. Only obedience.

  • Pete

    Come on, Mr. Mead. you should know that, at the core of the movement, the Greens are anti-people, anti-development, and anti-industry.

    More than anything, the Greens want to push down America’s standard of living — for the hoi poli, of course, but not themselves.

    For the enviro-kooks, global warming was the pretext they tried to use to accomplish their hidden agenda.

  • Thirdsyphon

    There might be nobody formally speaking for the middle ground, but the middle ground outcome is what’s actually occurring, to the benefit of everyone concerned. The greens and NIMBYs have been able to stop shale oil extraction in the “blue” areas where their supporters are concentrated and hold political sway, which has had the effect of funneling additional investment capital into “red” states and communities that are ready to welcome this new industry with open arms.

    Everybody wins, no?

    • Corlyss

      Here’s what concerns me: 70% of the western US is owned by the Feds. If that translates to 70% of shale reserves as well, we’ll never get at that.

      • Joseph Blieu

        True but Nevada is not a shale play. Central CA valley and west CO are. Main deal is PA ND TX OH NY WV MI so hometown America owned by folks and States have the bulk of reserves. Such a remarkable source of wealth. Question is when it will be hyper taxed.

        • Thirdsyphon

          I think the answer to your question (in red and blue states alike, as it is all over the world), is “As soon as the energy companies have put in enough cash that they’re irrevocably committed.”

      • Thirdsyphon

        It’s hard to predict, but it’s unlikely that the Feds are holding 70% of the country’s shale reserves, for the reasons given by Joseph Blieu below. Even if they were, though, Presidents have historically been more generous than Barack Obama in handing out drilling permits.

        As far as the stuff sitting underneath state and private lands go, referring again to JB’s post, you can see that it’s a mixed bag. ND and TX are falling and will continue to fall all over themselves in their efforts to facilitate shale exploitation. NY and CA. . . . will not. The other states on that list are going to have pitched political battles over this issue for different reasons, with different outcomes that will mostly favor extraction. (For instance, in WV, the strongest political opponents to shale extraction could well turn out to be the coal lobby).

  • Corlyss

    “Greens used to like gas”
    That was when they were toasting each other that Peak Oil was in sight. Gas was to the Greens what Afghanistan was to Obama in 2007 – an excuse to sound like they would never disapprove of all war (or cheap energy), just the bad ones. Only the naïve believed them.

  • dankingbooks

    I think you missed one important factor. Fracking was developed completely outside the academy. It never had any professorial input, received any peer reviewed grants, nor got published in the Journal of Irrelevant Results. The Academy is a jealous god, and something that doesn’t bow obeisance engenders wrath.

    Since the Academy is ground zero for the environmental movement, then all else follows.

  • AnnSaltzafrazz

    Greens want expensive energy so people will use less. Part of this is misanthropy–believing that human beings are the root of all evil on Gaia, and that the last thing She needs is for people to be more successful and develop and destroy the earth further.

  • CygnusA81

    Well most Greens are Neo-Luddites who hate the modern world and what it has given us. They want people (well expect for them) to live in a pre-industrial time period. That and they want complete control over the economy.

  • Tom Servo

    Another big problem for the greens is that somewhere along the way, they realized “OH NOES! Oil and Gas companies are going to make money from this!” Since the oil and gas industry has become the Great Satan of the enviro-world, this was an absolutely unacceptable outcome.

    The greens have much in common with the old Russian peasant who was approached by the angel Gabriel one day, and told “I have a great blessing for you! Ask anything you want, and it will be given to you! The only condition is that for whatever I give you, your neighbor will get a double measure.”

    The Russian thought about the proposition carefully, and finally said “Make me Blind in one eye.”

  • Ken Moon

    You say “landowners own the mineral rights to the resources directly under their property and drillers compensate them for access to shale energy”.

    That is not necessarily true in California (I don’t know about the other states). In California, the ability to control ownership of and access to mineral resources is separated from ownership of real estate, such as land. Each can be sold independently of the other.

    Many homeowners don’t know whether or not they own the mineral rights to the land beneath their houses, until someone rolls up in a truck and tells them they are going to set up some equipment on the surface to access the minerals they own underneath the house.

    There are state agencies, as well as the federal BLM, who can assist homeowners to determine if they own the rights to minerals, including gas, under their property, and what to do if the above situation occurs. There are also law firms who take this sort of case, and can help the homeowners.

  • gekkobear

    You mean it lets the poor have cheap energy, electricity, and heating?

    Horrible, how dare someone lessen costs on the poor; we must find a way to make them suffer; for the good of the planet.

    *Posted from my iPhone inside my McMansion*

    Let them eat cake?

  • crosspatch

    Can someone give me an example of a “non-polluting renewable”? A wind turbine requires the opening of a copper and rare-earths mine to produce the wiring and magnets for the generator. Solar requires a semiconductor plant. There is no such thing as a non-polluting renewable.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service