The method of shale gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing is about as contentious an issue as they come, with diehard opponents and diehard supporters seemingly unwilling to concede any ground to the other. As EDF President Fred Krupp and Michael Bloomberg noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Listening to the polarized energy debate in the United States, you might think natural gas was an economic and geopolitical cure-all — or an environmental curse.” The situation is not nearly so cut and dry, and there are pragmatic questions and realities that transcend the rhetoric. Hydraulic fracturing isn’t all good, but it doesn’t have to be all bad, either.
A “data acquisition and management problem”
Factually speaking, natural gas burns cleaner than coal. However, uncombusted natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first two decades it is released. Methane invariably escapes when natural gas is produced and transported, but estimates vary wildly as to how much.
EDF and its partners are working to figure out precisely how much methane is escaping across the entire natural gas supply chain process. The findings will help determine if “rogue emissions” negate any potential environmental benefits of natural gas.
“[A] data-driven approach can reduce air and water pollution from shale gas drilling, by requiring operators and regulators to identify and correct hot spots. We have the technology to do this,” Krupp and Bloomberg wrote.
Opposition is not irrational
“Local concerns stem from real problems,” Krupp wrote in a Foreign Affairs article [registration required]. Groundwater contamination, air pollution and other serious potential consequences deserve serious consideration. Victims of such grievances deserve our support, and basic human decency demands that we try to mitigate avoidable suffering. But the first step remains understanding the full landscape. The causes of the problems are not going away anytime soon, so we need environmentalists, companies and elected officials working together to ensure better safeguards are in place. Check out this success story from Colorado for an example of the type of leadership and collaboration the situation requires.
If you’re interested in a clear-eyed, pragmatic assessment of the hydraulic fracturing landscape as it exists today, and how it might be meaningfully improved, the New York Times op-ed and Foreign Affairs articles linked above are exceptional starting points. While the “all or nothing” approach that gets more ink and airtime has a certain emotional appeal, the stakes for our domestic energy future, to say nothing of those for human health and the environment, warrant getting beyond words and moving toward real solutions.