The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Shale Gas Is Fracking Green

greenshootenergy

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]

Published on July 5, 2013 1:45 pm
  • rheddles

    Perhaps this should be taken as evidence that the environmentalists concerns are not motivated by rational analysis but by some irrational belief, almost religious in nature.

    • Philopoemen

      Q: How do you guess if someone’s an environmentalist?

      A: You don’t have to, they’ll tell you.

      • https://www.facebook.com/ritchietheriveter Ritchie The Riveter

        Yep, and with a fundamentalist zeal that makes fire-and-brimstone preachers sound like they’ve got a good buzz on …

    • https://www.facebook.com/ritchietheriveter Ritchie The Riveter

      That’s why I call their most publicized effort these days, the Climate Change Cult.

  • Corlyss

    Combine this with the fact that it was just announced that we have something like double the oil reserves and 4 times the shale gas reserves, and we’re looking at energy independence by 2020 if we can just free ourselves from the animist ankle biters now in control of energy policy.

  • Andrew Allison

    The argument that natural gas is less environmentally harmful than coal is irrelevant to the eco-Nazis. All fossil fuel is bad, bad, bad!

  • Joseph Blieu

    Fracking is certainly a blow to the supporters of Peak Oil, the belief formerly known as settled science, but really revived Malthusian ancient history. Every miner knows that when the big cheap ore bodies are played out you find one a little less rich, raise the price, and keep going. We will keep finding recoverable oil, gas, coal and minerals (they are what the earth is made of) and things will go up in cost or we will find substitutes.

  • Pete

    1. “Burning coal emits roughly twice as much greenhouse gas into the air as natural gas. ”

    True ….but much more importantly to the environment, if not to the enviro wing-nuts, is the fact that coal releases heavy particles into the air, not the least of which is Hg.

    Natural gas does not do this. So when it is said that gas burns cleaner than coal, much more than the relatively innocuous CO2 is involved.

    2.”Surprisingly, this [fracking]is actually good news for solar and wind energy.”

    Not so. Natural gas will all but put the nail in the coffin of the wind & solar pipe dreams which now only exist because of massive government and rate user subsidies..

    • https://www.facebook.com/ritchietheriveter Ritchie The Riveter

      Your point about the subsidies is well taken … but one way increased use of natural gas makes wind and solar more viable, is that natural gas can be directly fed to gas-turbine generators instead of being used to fire up boilers.

      Gas turbines can be spun up/spun down from a “cold” state far quicker than steam-based generation, and can much more easily cover for the sudden lapses in generation capacity from renewables. In this regard, they are the next-best thing to the battery/electronics-based power-storage systems that are just beginning to become practical.

      Also, an array of smaller gas turbines, spread out to deliver the same generation capacity as a big steam plant (which can’t be readily scaled down and remain economical to operate) is less of an eyesore and less objectionable on NIMBY grounds..

  • nukgod

    The only reason environmentalist currently support wind and solar is that the technology is not currently viable. If the day ever comes when wind and solar are technologically and commercially viable, expect them to be added to the hate list.

    • AD_Rtr_OS

      But they don’t support building the transmission lines across “pristine wilderness” to get that solar or wind energy to major urban communities.

    • https://www.facebook.com/ritchietheriveter Ritchie The Riveter

      When wind becomes commercially viable, watch for their “concern” for the birds killed by wind generators.

      • http://www.agoyandhisblog.com/ AGoyAndHisBlog

        And aren’t we seeing that dynamic in action now, when the ecoterrorists DEMAND elimination of plastic grocery bags? You know, the same bags they DEMANDED we use instead of renewable paper bags?

        It never ends, and they’re never wrong.

  • bigfire

    Environmentalist believe in all forms of energy, except the ones that works.

  • immanuelgoldstein

    The radical environmentalists are completely irrational until you realize that their goal is not a clean environment, but the eradication of the free enterprise system. Simply put, they hate America and want to see it reduced to rubble.

    • AD_Rtr_OS

      We’ll start with their possessions.

    • https://www.facebook.com/ritchietheriveter Ritchie The Riveter

      DING DING DING! – we have a winner.

      They will not be satisfied until they achieve their profit-motive-free Utopia … even if they have to litigate us back to the Stone Age to get it.

  • AD_Rtr_OS

    Plus, every ton of coal displaced from U.S. energy generation is another ton of coal sold to the Chinese (improving our trade position) for….
    energy generation.

  • http://www.agoyandhisblog.com/ AGoyAndHisBlog

    Pretty sure the only thing that ever made this drilling process controversial was the Saudi money and influence used to generate anti-fracking propaganda.

  • Fred_Z

    Anyone who uses the phrase “greenhouse gas” without quotes has bought into green assumptions and is no longer capable of rational argument on the subject of AGW.

  • Beldar

    It’s not just improvements in fracking technology (although those are significant). The current boom is also born of improvements in directional drilling, which cuts the number of holes that must be drilled — with their resulting top-side sites — spectacularly.

  • labman57

    Fracking for natural gas rather than drilling for petroleum is the functional equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul.