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Two Kinds of Green
The Misleading Science of Bill McKibben

He’s at it again. Bill McKibben might be the foremost leader of the modern environmental movement, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good advocate for smart green policies. In a piece for The Nation this week, he took aim at fracking’s green merits:

In February, Harvard researchers published an explosive paper in Geophysical Research Letters. Using satellite data and ground observations, they concluded that the nation as a whole is leaking methane in massive quantities. Between 2002 and 2014, the data showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of an enormous spike in methane in the entire planet’s atmosphere. […]

The EPA insisted this wasn’t happening, that methane was on the decline just like CO2. But it turns out, as some scientists have been insisting for years, the EPA was wrong. Really wrong… These leaks are big enough to wipe out a large share of the gains from the Obama administration’s work on climate change—all those closed coal mines and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, it’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years.

That sounds pretty serious. We’ve long pointed out that shale gas, to the extent that it’s been able to displace coal as a power production energy source (which is to say, by quite a large extent), is fracking green. Burning natural gas emits roughly half the CO2 as coal and far fewer of the local pollutants, so its ascension at the expense of coal ought to be heralded as a green triumph. Of course, by dint of the fact that it’s a fossil fuel, most environmentalists have snubbed shale gas’s positive eco-impacts, and in fact Bill McKibben has led this opposition at every step of the way.

But according to Ted Nordhaus over at the Breakthrough Institute (a source of much smarter green thinking, it must be said), McKibben is playing a bit fast and loose with the math here, or rather the chemistry:

“This new Harvard data,” McKibben writes, “suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities.”…The Harvard study, in fact, suggests nothing of the sort. The Harvard researchers measured atmospheric concentrations of methane across North America and compared them with levels over the Pacific Ocean. They concluded that methane emissions in North America had risen significantly since 2002. But they also concluded that while the United States has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production since 2002, “the spatial pattern of the methane increase… does not clearly point to these sources.” […]

With regard to the actual rates of methane leakage, McKibben cherrypicks studies, several of them from avowed fracking opponents, that find that leak rates are much higher than EPA estimates, in order to argue that methane leakage erodes much, if not all of the climate benefit of switching electricity production from coal to gas. These studies are outliers. What the balance of evidence shows—including studies by EPA, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the University of Texas—is that leak rates, while in some cases higher than EPA estimates, are well below levels at which they would begin to significantly erode the benefits of switching from coal to gas.

These are important issues—we know greenhouse gases contribute to rising surface temperatures, and that in order to prevent that from happening we ought to try and mitigate our role in their emissions. McKibben would have us simply stop using fossil fuels altogether overnight, but that’s demonstrably impossible and represents a willful misreading of our energy reality. His brand of green would rather see wind turbines and solar panels erected than relatively clean burning shale gas fracked, despite the fact that renewables can’t possibly provide the kind of power civilization requires without bankrupting governments and consumers, and that even if they could they would be incapable of keeping the lights on 24/7, when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

We need smarter green thinkers than McKibben, ones capable of seeing potential solutions in the framework of what is both politically feasible and realistically possible. Thankfully, as Ted Nordhaus proves, there are some smart greens out there. We ought to listen to them.

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