Last week, the country celebrated Earth Day. And, predictably, anti-drilling activists took the opportunity to criticize all things fossil fuel, with an equally predictable attack on hydraulic fracturing. Given that, it seems appropriate to revisit a 2013 paper from the Centre for Policy Studies that I’m guessing no one in the environmental community referenced on April 22.
It was written by two researchers who could hardly be called “tools” of the energy industry: Richard Muller, professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Elizabeth Muller, executive director of Berkeley Earth. Their conclusion: “Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”
Here are 10 takeaways from the paper that underscore their argument:
1. Concerns over water usage, CO2 emissions, groundwater contamination, and leaked fugitive methane “are either largely false or can be addressed by appropriate regulation.”
2. Shale gas not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduces a pollutant called PM2.5 that kills more than 3 million people every year – including 75,000 premature deaths in the United States.
3. Compared to coal, shale gas results in a “400-fold reduction in PM2.5, a 4,000-fold reduction in sulfur dioxide, a 70-fold reduction in nitrous oxides... and more than a 30-fold reduction in mercury.”
4. When burned to produce energy, natural gas produces half the CO2 of coal; when the heat energy is used to generate power, natural gas can produce electricity with 50 percent higher efficiency than coal can.
5. “Because natural gas power plants are more efficient than those of coal, even with leakage rate of up to 17% (far higher than even the most pessimistic estimates), natural gas still provides a greenhouse gas improvement over coal for the same electricity produced.”
6. While injecting fracking wastewater into the ground can cause earthquakes, no large tremors have been associated with fracturing itself. Rather, there has been a link to disposal wells: “There are about 30,000 such wells in the US, most used for conventional oil and gas wastewater burial. Of these, most show no injection-induced seismicity.”
7. Cheap natural gas can “also make it easier for solar and wind energy to further penetrate electricity markets by providing the rapid back-up that those intermittent sources require.”
8. “Shale gas is urgently needed to address the greatest human-caused environmental disaster of our time, rising levels of air pollution.”
9. “We must help the world switch from coal to natural gas. This is not just a public heath issue but a humanitarian one.”
10. “Shale gas can be a clean technology, and even though it will not halt global warming, only energy conservation offers a more affordable way to slow it.”
The authors summarize their findings by saying, “Environmentalists should recognize the shale gas revolution as beneficial to society and lend their full support to helping it advance.”
Is that likely to happen? Probably not.
I’ve written before that the main concern of activists is environmental politics rather than environmental policy. But the fact is, as this paper points out, fracking is a “solution to the pollution.” And as Earth Day no doubt demonstrated – and, frankly, as every day no doubt demonstrates – drilling critics are more interested in talking about problems than they are in acknowledging solutions.