The Environmental Defense Fund, of which speaker Dan Grossman is regional director, would reconcile climate and energy issues. EDF, you may have heard, is one of the world's established Big Green environmental groups. There is more to that story.
In pursuit of that union between climate and energy, EDF placed all its eggs in the basket of cap and trade. As we all know at one point it had been close to coming to pass, but close nets us no cigar. When the cap-and-trade basket broke, EDF whisked its eggs into natural gas. Perceiving prospect amidst peril, EDF is attempting to partner with the industry to "do things right", like the wife of a rampaging husband who, on days he doesn't hit her, assures herself he's starting to respect her.
Proponents and partners of natural gas tout its cleaner combustion, and it is indeed the case that with gas (but not oil) combustion, we are seeing lower levels of air pollution--as long as we restrict our view to the burning. Carbon-dioxide emissions from burning coal total 2,200 pounds per megawatt hour while those from burning natural gas total a relatively paltry 950 pounds per MW.h. But power-plant emissions are hardly the whole story. A truer picture of energy effects requires including the entire production cycle. In the case of coal it is relatively simple. Coal is mined and processed, transported, and burned--three simple steps if we ignore the impacts of detonating any mountains in our way. Natural gas, on the other hand, once extracted, must be processed to remove impurities, transmitted along pipelines or in trucks, stored, and locally distributed before it can be burned--a five-step process that, once again, overlooks the minutia of drilling.
EDF has chosen to partner with the oil-and-gas industry "to do things right". Can fracking be our friend?Frack dance
Fracking, says Grossman, equals energy security. How often those seductive words do susurrate. Energy security will make us safe from scheming furriners. Energy security will protect our unsustainable lifestyle. Energy security will restore us to our proper place in the eyes of an envious world. Of course, energy security refers exclusively to newfound (or newly accessible) fossil fuels.
In a talking point lifted right out of the industry's litany, Grossman said that hydraulic fracturing has been around for a long time. Except it hasn't--horizontal slickwater fracking had its first success in 1998, transforming the industry and introducing a technology that is still being "perfected". Perhaps to believe that fracking has been around a long time assuages doubts about how well tested is the technology and how innocuous its tailings.
Undoubtedly fracking is providing an economic bonanza to those areas perched fortuitously or not, depending on perspective, atop the right sort of shale. This bonanza of gas and of oil, which, oh hallelujah, can be fracked as well, is increasing the energy security of this country. We don't import so many foreign fossil fuels and may even be in a position to distribute our own, or our technology, to the rest of the world. When that happens, be warned: Any who endeavor to spurn our largesse may bump up hard against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Let them burn gas.Frack dunce
Now that fracking is for oil as well as gas, we have a new manifestation of an old problem. Gas is often associated with oil in oil fields or even in coal beds where it is known as coal-bed methane. (When gas like Cinderella is the sole hydrocarbon in the realm it is "non-associated".) When a driller is looking for oil and comes across unbidden gas, he can't patch it through another pipe because facilities for the two fuels diverge. So he lets it go. You've seen them in Texas and now North Dakota--flame-spouting apertures through which unwanted natural gas is being flared. Vastly worse for the planet since methane is so a potent a hothouse gas is the practice of simply venting surplus gas to air. Both customs were common throughout the last century and are still in practice now, with the emphasis nominally on flaring.
There may be less air pollution when gas is burned, but occasions abound for water most foul. Contamination of water, be it ground- or surface, Grossman tells us, occurs more frequently from spills than from drilling. Whichever the culprit, results are the same--contaminated water. Water uncontaminated is in great demand for fracking, and at this time most water used to frack is useless ever after. Any water diverted in the semi-arid, full allocated West will be subtracted from some other purpose.
In the midst of the gas rush lurks the obstinate problem of methane leaks. For Grossman and the EDF, the solution is simply to reduce those leaks. Easier said than done; on the path from shale to stove, invisible defects are rife. And estimates of the extent of leakage diverge. Still working on that marriage, EDF is teamed with industry to pinpoint that percentage. The question is how to fix it.
What is euphemistically called "cumulative impacts"--noise, pounding, lights, and trucks the livelong day--primarily affect local residents. Their pain contributes to a certain lack of public trust. When Dick Cheney engineered the release of the oil-and-gas industry from clean-water oversight it raised a few eyebrows; maintaining strict secrecy over constituents of fracking fluid has not encouraged their descent.Thumbing the scale
We've covered pros and cons of natural gas, which is now or soon will be available throughout the world in abundance, thanks to hydraulic fracturing lavishly applied. Cons may predominate but the scale still tilts in the direction of drilling. The thumb on the scale is the prospect of short-term profit.
Investment-wise, says Grossman, renewable energies are just not viable. The prospect of cheap and plentiful natural gas eradicates any sputtering impulse toward developing renewables. The only real fix to our dilemma is to put a price on carbon--a price that is commensurate with what using it is costing the planet. As to doing that we're not even close.
Seems like EDF is in a dysfunctional relationship, and too many people are thinking with their drills.
This article emerged from the eighth of nine planned lectures held by the Center of the American West, CU Continuing Education, Boulder County, and the AirWaterGas Research Network (of the National Science Foundation/Sustainability Research Network) on various aspects of hydraulic fracturing.