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Sated Curiosity
Your Questions About the Shale Boom, Answered

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well drilling have set off a veritable energy boom in the United States in recent years. The dual technologies have allowed drillers access to vast deposits of oil and gas trapped in shale rock formations, and in so doing have completely transformed America’s energy fortunes. But as quickly as the shale boom has come on, a huge storm of controversy has followed, and in the back-and-forth between green protestations that fracking is poisoning our planet and brown insistence on the need to drill, baby, drill, it can be difficult to know whom to listen to.

Fortunately, this weekend we have two features that can help answer some of the many questions that surround the U.S. shale revolution. First, over on Vox, Brad Plumer interviews Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, about his book The Power Surge, which came out last year. Here’s an excerpt:

BP: Now you mentioned that the oil and gas boom sits uneasily beside concerns about climate change. How do you think about how these fit together?

ML: My broad philosophy, and this argument was at the heart of the book, is that you want as many energy options as you can get. That includes technological progress that enables you to get more oil and gas. But you need to use them intelligently if you want to tackle climate change.

So on the gas front, I really do think we have done that intelligently. Since the book first came out, we’ve seen a big push by the Environmental Protection Agency on carbon-dioxide regulations for existing power plants that would not be remotely the same if not for the gas boom. There have been studies showing that policies and regulations are more important than natural gas for cutting emissions. And those are persuasive. But you have to ask, does the emergence of a cheap, reliable option for cutting emissions make regulators more willing to force power plants to cut their emissions? And the answer is yes. We’re seeing that play out.

And our friends over at the Breakthrough Institute offer a fascinating FAQ about shale gas. Here’s a well-footnoted answer to a question at the heart of the controversy over fracking:

Isn’t fracking contaminating ground water?

There is little evidence that fracking fluids have contaminated ground water in the course of fracking operations underground, but there have been a few cases where wastewater associated with fracking operations has spilled or leaked out of storage tanks and ponds and contaminated surface waterways and groundwater. Industrial accidents of this type, as is the case with virtually all industrial activities, from mining to refining, are to some degree inevitable and largely preventable through improved standards, practices, and regulations.

There have been reports of methane contaminating water supplies, but most incidents have not ended up being attributable to fracking. Most incidents of high methane concentrations in groundwater have resulted from naturally occurring sources (often in regions where gas production also is occurring) or from older, conventional natural gas operations, which tend to operate at depths closer to aquifers and groundwater supplies. In virtually all cases, both life-cycle water intensity and pollution associated with coal production and combustion far outweigh those related to shale gas production.

These links are well-worth taking the time to explore and read in full. In both cases, salient information is plainly displayed—which, you might say, ought to be standard for reporting on the shale boom. Unfortunately, the fight over fracking has become something much more than just a conversation about a drilling technique, and in such a charged atmosphere it can be difficult to find clear-headed thinking.

But if you’re looking to learn something about the most important development in the American energy landscape in decades, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Michael Levi and the Breakthrough Institute.

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