POTENTIALS OF FRACKING
JOE NOCERA | NYT NEWS SERVICE FRACKING isn’t going away.
To put it another way, the technique of hydraulic fracturing, used to extract natural gas from once-impossible- to-get-at reservoirs like the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath New York and Pennsylvania, has more than proved its value. At this point, shale gas, as it’s called, makes up more than 30 percent of the country’s natural gas supply, up from 2 percent in 2001 – a figure that is sure to keep rising.
Fracking’s enemies can stamp their feet all they want, but that gas is too important to leave it in the ground.
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defence Fund, understands this as well as anyone.
Last summer, he was a member of a small federal advisory panel that was charged by Steven Chu, the secretary of energy, with assessing the problems associated with fracking. The group came up with a long list of environmental issues.
But it also concluded, that “the US shale gas resource has enormous potential to provide economic and environmental benefits for the country.” One thing I’ve always liked about the Environmental Defence Fund is its hardheaded approach.
Founded by scientists, it believes in data, not hysteria. It promotes market incentives to change behaviour and isn’t afraid to work with industry. Utterly nonpartisan, it is oriented towards practical policy solutions.
And that has been its approach to fracking. When I spoke to him recently, Krupp didn’t back away from the idea that domestic natural gas could be the “bridge fuel” that helps bring us towards a renewable energy future. Unlike others in the environmental movement, he and his colleagues at the Environmental Defence Fund don’t want to shut down fracking; rather, their goal is to work with the states where most of the shale gas lies and help devise smart regulations that would make fracking environmentally safer.
Let’s take one example: the problem of methane leaks. Every natural gas well leaks methane – methane is natural gas, after all – and while the natural gas that winds up being burned as fuel is, indeed, relatively clean, methane that escapes into the air is potent.
Though it eventually disintegrates, for several decades methane can add significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.
Question No. 1: How much methane leaks into the air as a result of fracking? Incredibly, nobody knows. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the leak rate at a little more than 2 percent, but a recent study suggested it might be twice that. And a controversial Cornell University study last year said it was closer to 6 percent.
Clearly, it is critical to know the answer, which is why the Environmental Defence Fund is participating in a study that is expected to provide one.
Question No. 2: How big a difference will it make to the environment if industry can minimise methane leaks? A lot. To illustrate the point, Steven Hamburg, the group’s chief scientist, showed me a model he had devised. It allowed me to see the effect on greenhouse gas emissions as methane leaks were reduced. Suppose, for instance, the current leak rate turns out to be 4 percent. Suppose we then reduce it in half. That would mean an immediate reduction in overall US greenhouse gases by – are you sitting down for this? – 9 percent. If the leaks are reduced to 1 percent, the decrease in greenhouse gases jumps to 14 percent. (That number eventually gets smaller as the potency of the methane wears off.) Meanwhile, failing to reduce methane leaks largely eliminates the environmental advantage of natural gas over coal. You can plug in different estimates and get different results, but the point is this: There is no denying the huge difference it can make to the environment to reduce methane gas leaks.
Nor is this some kind of impossible dream. “There are cost-effective ways to reduce methane leaks,” says Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, a number of the better producers, like Shell, are employing technology to minimise leaks and taking other steps to drill for natural gas in a responsible fashion. Nor is there much doubt that the outcry by environmentalists over fracking helped awaken the industry to the problems.
But, of course, not all drillers can be counted on to drill responsibly, which is why regulation is so critical.
“Wouldn’t it be better,” I asked Krupp, “for fracking to be regulated by the federal government rather than by the states? Wouldn’t that mean better, more uniform regulation and tougher enforcement?” Krupp frowned. “Given the dysfunction in DC, a state-by-state approach will be more effective,” he said. “We need to focus on getting the rules right, and complied with, in the 14 states which have 85 percent of the onshore gas reserves.” Here’s hoping that the antifrackers someday join him.