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J. Mijin Cha Headshot

Fracking Is No Breakthrough

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One way to undermine movement on climate change is to create a false dichotomy that pits advocates against each other. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening now in the fracking battle. Using the term "fractivists," some environmentalists are blasting celebrities that advocate against fracking and as representatives from the Breakthrough Institute claimed, "anti-gas = pro-coal." In fact, not only is this claim absolutely false, it serves to destroy the climate movement, not make it stronger. As long as we are stuck in the simplistic mindset that we can only advance coal or natural gas as our main energy sources, we will never have any meaningful movement on climate change.

It is true that once out of the ground, natural gas burns cleaner than coal. If we could just dig in a pipe and release natural gas, than it would be a good bridge fuel until we can transition to a clean energy economy. However, that is simply not the case. For one, fracking is incredibly environmentally damaging. It requires an enormous amount of water and toxic chemicals, which leak and taint groundwater. Fracking communities have experienced mysterious health problems and increased risk of earthquakes. Natural gas workers are exposed to toxic environments and fracking operations release a great deal of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

A recent study by Duke University found that methane levels in water wells near fracking sites were 17 times higher than other wells. Another study from Cornell University found that fracking releases more greenhouse gases than oil and at least 20 percent more gases than coal mining. The study found that between 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent of methane from shale-gas production escapes into the atmosphere. It escapes from flow-back return fluids when wells are fractured and during the actual drilling process. Methane contributes significantly to the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas, dominating it on a 20-year time horizon. On a per pound basis, methane traps roughly 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide. At that level and intensity, the methane released from fracking operations offsets any climate gains that come from burning natural gas instead of coal.

Adding to this, the jobs and economic development promised to fracking communities rarely materialize. Not to mention, there isn't really all that much gas that can be extracted. While pro-fracking interests like to claim we are sitting on top of a 100-year supply, the resources supply is different than the rate of supply. A new report found that the production of fracking wells has been on a plateau since December 2011 and not due to a lack of effort. The report found that the vast majority of fracking wells are depleted within five years. This high decline rate requires continuous capital inputs -- at least $42 billion per year to drill more than 7,000 wells. In other words, while the gas may be there, the time and cost needed to extract it only becomes worthwhile if the price of gas goes up substantially. At that point, why not invest that level of capital in making renewable energy a viable source?

Pro-fracking interests like to mock environmentalists who champion renewable energy development over natural gas. Yet, renewable energy production in the U.S. increased 12.8 percent in 2012 and provided 5.4 percent of net electrical generation. The growth in renewables comes despite the industry receiving just a fraction of the support given to fossil fuels. In 2011, global subsidies to the fossil fuel industries increased nearly 30 percent to $523 billion. By comparison, renewable energy received only $88 billion in subsidies. Pro-fracking interests also often ignore the fact that fracking was developed over decades and with substantial financial support. The federal government contributed more than $100 million in research to develop fracking and provided billions more in tax breaks.

The path forward is not to drain every single drop of oil, coal, and natural gas from the ground before we start to focus a clean energy future. What we should be doing is substantially investing in renewable energy development and winding down fossil fuel extraction. What we should not be doing is actively working to split the climate movement by trying to force communities to choose between coal or natural gas. The path forward includes neither.

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