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


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.


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

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