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If Natural Gas Is Less Noxious Than Coal, Don’t We Have to Frack?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Opinions are my stock-in-trade. Early in my career, I pretended to be objective, but as time went on I thought it would be more fun telling readers exactly what I think about psychiatric drugs, “progress” in psychology, multiverse “theories“, war-is-in-our-genes malarkey, free will and so on. I get frustrated when I just can’t make up my mind about an important issue. Like fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting fluids into rock formations deep underground to force natural gas to the surface. Modern refinements, which allow drilling down and then sideways for thousands of feet, have enabled firms to tap vast natural-gas reserves in the U.S. But these techniques can reportedly result in flaming tap water and other problems documented in the 2010 film Gasland.

Coverage of fracking—which Scientific American‘s Mark Fischetti has been helpfully compiling since April–leaves me feeling whipsawed. The New York Times recently cited forecasts that by 2035 the natural-gas industry could employ 2.4 million people and generate more than $1 trillion in tax and licensing revenues. That sounds good, right? But the same article detailed how fracking operations are threatening the health and sanity of some inhabitants of Western Pennsylvania, which has been called “America’s new energy capital.”

A group at Yale estimates that the economic benefits of fracking to the U.S. economy—which in 2010 came to $100 billion—outweigh the environmental costs by 400 to one. Replacing just one million of the 15 million barrels of oil imported by the U.S. each day with natural gas, the group calculates, would generate consumer savings of $25.6 billion a year. Reviewing this and other studies, The Daily Beast noted that there are “surprisingly few documented and confirmed cases of accidents occurring, especially with contaminated water.”

But investigative journalist Abrahm Lustgarten of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica reported in Scientific American this month that the long-term risks from injecting fluids deep underground may be greater than many proponents acknowledge. Lustgarten stated that wells drilled to bury toxic waste “have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water.”

Lustgarten quoted Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the Environmental Protection Agency’s underground injection program. “In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” Salazar said. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”

In “Why Not Frack?”, published in The New York Review of Books in March, environmental activist Bill McKibben argued that, although natural gas releases only half as much carbon dioxide as coal does per unit of energy, leakage of the greenhouse gas methane from natural-gas wells could make fracking as bad or worse than coal in terms of its contribution to global warming. McKibben opposes fracking.

I empathize with McKibben’s distaste for fracking. But we have to get our energy from somewhere, and renewables such as solar and wind—even when combined with vigorous conservation efforts—cannot meet our immediate needs. Two years ago, I reluctantly came out in favor of nuclear power, hoping that it could help us end our dependence on fossil fuels. But even disregarding post-Fukushima political opposition to nuclear power, we can’t build reactors fast enough to fulfill near-term energy demands.

If we ban fracking in the U.S., we will be even more reliant on coal, which most experts seem to think is far more damaging to the environment and human health than natural gas. According to the EPA, combustion of natural gas results in “negligible” emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury compounds, two major pollutants from coal plants, and only half as much carbon dioxide as coal. The Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit group, asserted in 2010 that coal emissions “cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year and hundreds of thousands of heart attacks, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, hospital admissions and lost workdays.”

Two journalists whose judgment I trust have advocated strict regulation and vigorous monitoring of fracking rather than an outright ban. In Scientific American last fall, Chris Mooney recommended testing water wells before and after fracking occurs nearby and putting tracer chemicals down gas wells to make detection of contamination easier.

Andy Revkin, my friend and Hudson Valley neighbor, has also come out in favor of fracking, incurring the wrath of anti-fracking forces here in New York. As Revkin wrote in January, “a responsible mix of regulation, transparency, liability and corporate-community exchanges can produce economic and energy benefits while limiting environmental risks.”

That seems sensible to me. When you don’t have good options, you go with the least noxious, which for now seems to be fracking. But Lustgarten’s report has me worried about fracking’s long-term effects on our water. If coal is the devil we know, fracking-induced natural gas is the devil we don’t know. We need less diabolical options.

Photo of natural-gas well courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Addendum: Josh Fox, who made Gasland, and Andy Revkin have an exchange on Andy’s blog, “Dotearth.” Check out the comments, in which Revkin is compared to a Holocaust denier. This debate is nasty.

Addendum #2: On July 1, the Aspen Ideas Festival will host an online debate, ”No Fracking Way: Is The Natural Gas Boom Doing More Harm Than Good?”, with Deborah Goldberg and Katherine Hudson arguing for the motion and Joe Nocera and Susan Tierney arguing against.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ronwagn 2:39 pm 06/25/2012 gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty and dangerous coal and nuclear plants. It is producing the electricity for electric cars. It will directly fuel pickup trucks, vans, buses, long haul trucks, dump trucks, locomotives, aircraft, ships etc. It will keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. Here are over 200 recent links for you:

    Link to this
  2. 2. shorewood 6:06 pm 06/25/2012

    There is no need to use noxious materials in fracking. Alternatives are virtually totally safe. Here is the “profile” of Gasfrac Energy Services -

    Gasfrac Energy Services Inc. operates as an oil and gas well fracturing company in Canada and the United States. The company through its technology, Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) Fracturing Process enables wells to be fractured with LPG, primarily propane and butane. Gasfrac Energy Services Inc. is headquartered in Calgary, Canada.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jerryd 8:13 pm 06/25/2012

    Fracking isn’t the problem so much as the cheap a– drillings ops that won’t drill thw wells right. The main problems are not sealing the well side so shallow HC’s, etc can get into the drinking water bearing layers.

    Next is they spill or dump fracking, drilling wastes which pollutes. Remember most wells only last a few yrs and destroying water supplies for that little amount of energy just isn’t cost effective.

    So good regulations and enforcements are vital or we pay the price of centuries.

    We don’t have any energy shortage except in a few isolated places even with shutting down so much coal from 60% 4 yrs ago to 34% last month.

    Facts are customer RE is now in many places less expensive than utility fossil fuels. If the socialized cost of them were in them instead of forced onto the people, RE would by far be cheaper. I now buy PV panels for $1/wt-$1k/kw and windgenerators at about $2k/kw.

    As for nukes they could be in place in 5 yrs if DOE would speed up SMR like the inheritally safe Hyperion, etc style factory built ones.

    RE could be installed much faster, create far more jobs if places like Fl, etc would allow anyone to sell electricity to anyone.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Mark Goldes 4:11 pm 06/28/2012

    Black Swans, highly improbable innovations with enormous implications, are being born in the energy arena.

    See Cheap Green and Moving Beyond Oil on the Aesop Institute website for a few of them.

    A few are likely to prove practical in the very near future. Accelerating validation, mass production and widespread installation can change the energy, economic and perhaps even the political landscape, much faster than might be imagined.

    The reason is Three Ticking Time Bombs discussed on the opening pages of the Aesop Institute website.

    Link to this
  5. 5. ssm1959 6:41 pm 06/28/2012

    The take home here is that we need an energy mosaic made up of multiple forms. Living near one of the windiest places in N.A. we are surrounded by several wind power projects. Much to everyones chagrin, after the towers and generators were in place the projected output was lacking. The planners and developers had to admit that “it isn’t as windy as we thought”; so much for the predictability of wind. Also living near the Bakken development we have seen the concerns over fracking. What is missed in the debate is the fact that current fracking technology is miles ahead of the problems of the older technology currently in debate. New developments in this industry are sure to come in the near future including Ultrasonics and other methods that use little or in some cases no noxious chemicals.

    The point is our energy technologies are evolutionary not revealed knowledge. Consequently arbitrarily cutting of areas of development for real or imagined problems makes our overall situation worse not better.

    Link to this
  6. 6. sofistek 12:52 am 06/29/2012

    “If we ban fracking in the U.S., we will be even more reliant on coal, which most experts seem to think is far more damaging to the environment and human health than natural gas”

    The second part of that sentence is a subject of some debate (partly because of methane leaks) but the first part makes the assumption that we have to continue using as much energy as we are (and, as the US continues to struggle to get growth going, it wants even more). If this attitude doesn’t change, there is an almost iron-clad guarantee that, even if there is more emphasis on fracking, in the short term, eventually, there would be a switch back to coal, to power the industrial economy. You can’t consume non-renewable resources without depleting them, so we’ll use dirtier and dirtier forms of energy in the struggle to keep growing. As mentioned in the article, renewable energies can’t cut it, in terms of scale, utility or net energy. There really is only one solution – power down. If we don’t do it voluntarily, nature will force it on us. The latter will be harder than the former.

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  7. 7. tuned 11:06 am 04/10/2014

    You should read the EPA analysis of fracking fluid.
    Its’ contents are horrific.
    It has been in the news for it to be leaked (thousands of gallons) into croplands, etc.

    Link to this

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