Politics & Policy

Fracking Fears Overblown

Natural gas mainly threatens Big Renewable’s access to taxpayer green.

It’s trendy on the left to decry big corporations, especially when they engage in political activity. That’s all well and good, but using the same principles, environmentalists should be getting reamed, too. They profiteer not only from their business operations but also, in fact mostly, from taxpayer largesse. Under the guise of do-goodery, they’re essentially a big industry group with brilliant P.R., advancing claims that often aren’t scientifically sound.

A new study yanks the scientific footing out from under one of the key criticisms that Big Green Business makes against fracking for natural gas. Conducted by the University of Texas at Austin and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study is the most comprehensive of its kind to date, examining 190 fracking sites. It discovered that far less methane is emitted than the EPA and its cohorts in the environmental community have long claimed. The study was sponsored by several petroleum companies but also by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), further bolstering its credibility.

The study reports that the EPA has overstated the amount of natural-gas methane leaks by about 20 percent—and that’s even after the agency recently revised its estimate downwards. Furthermore, special “completion” equipment installed at many sites resulted in “99 percent of the potential emissions [being] captured or controlled,” the study noted. The amount of methane released into the atmosphere is very, very small — equivalent to less than half a percent of all natural-gas production.

As an energy source, natural gas is pretty clean, producing only half the carbon emission of coal. This makes natural gas a threat to other “clean energy” sources, and in response, the green lobby has alleged that methane leaks at fracking sites are contributing significantly to global warming.

The argument contains a grain of truth, because when methane escapes into the air, it’s an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. As the New York Times summarized this week, “Such potency means that even a small loss of methane to the air — just 3.4 percent, scientists say — can negate its climate-changing advantage over coal.”

That equation has resulted in some bold alarmism. For starters, there’s the sensational analysis of DeSmogBlog, which has been lauded by Time magazine and claims to be “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science.” Its executive director and managing editor wrote in 2011 that natural gas “is not just a ‘bridge to nowhere,’ it turns out to be a highway to hell. . . . With total methane emissions factored in, shale gas turns out to have the greatest climate impact of all the fossil fuels. . . . Contrary to popular belief, gas is just as polluting as coal in the long term — and far worse in the near term due to the higher warming impact from methane when it is first released into the atmosphere during the controversial fracking stage.”

And earlier this year, a coalition of 67 environmental groups vented their indignation about the use of any natural gas whatsoever. “These are fossil fuels, and their extraction and consumption will inevitably degrade our environment and contribute to climate change,” the coalition wrote, over signatures from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as well as celebractivists Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger. They also asserted that fracking would “permanently remove huge quantities of water from the hydrological cycle, pollute the air, contaminate the drinking water, and release high levels of methane into the atmosphere.”

(The letter was an effort to censure the EDF for daring to partner with a nonprofit that supports best practices within the natural-gas industry. Imagine how outraged these groups are now that the EDF has also supported objective scientific inquiry into fracking and its effects.)

Real environmentalists would embrace natural gas as the best viable solution to America’s energy demand. It’s significantly cleaner than coal, not only when it comes to carbon dioxide but also for nitrogen and sulfur oxide emissions. It’s already crowding out the dirtier energy sources; gas accounts for about one-fourth of all American energy usage, and ExxonMobil has estimated it will become the second-largest energy source on the planet by 2025, overtaking even coal. Anyone worried about clean air and greenhouse gases should applaud this trend.

But tucked into their screeds against natural gas, environmentalists reveal their actual motive. Joe Romm at Climate Progress came the closest to outright admitting it, writing in January 2012: “We don’t want new gas plants to displace new renewables, like solar and wind.” He adds, with unfounded optimism, that these “are going to be the [sic] some of the biggest, sustainable job creating industries of the century.”

Likewise, Anthony Ingraffea — who has become something of a spokesman for those who oppose natural gas because of purported methane emissions — wrote in the New York Times in July that “we have renewable wind, water, solar and energy-efficiency technology options now. We can scale these quickly and affordably, creating economic growth, jobs and a truly clean energy future to address climate change. Political will is the missing ingredient.”

What Ingraffea and others fail to note is that right now — despite strong political will to “invest” in renewables, usually at massive taxpayer expense — a measly 9 percent of American energy derives from hydropower, solar, geothermal, wind, and biomass combined.

The subsidies that prop up these renewables are lucrative for Big Green Industry. Last year the federal government gave renewable-energy companies more than $2.3 billion in corporate tax credits. The year before that, the federal government spent $16 billion in renewable-energy and energy-efficiency subsidies. The Department of Energy spent around $8.3 billion on its ill-fated clean-energy loans, many of which have gone to companies like Solyndra. State and local governments have their own subsidy offerings for renewable-energy companies; furthermore, at least 29 states and the District of Columbia have renewable-energy mandates, creating an artificial market for an expensive and inefficient product. That list isn’t comprehensive, but it begins to give a picture of how much money can be pocketed in pursuit of renewable energy. And a significant fraction of that money goes to finance green groups that will oppose the natural-gas threat to “clean energy” on ostensibly scientific grounds.

Once again, it looks like the environmental lobby’s objections to natural gas are motivated less by science and more by good, old-fashioned greed.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.


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