As the New York State Democratic primary heats up, it has become evident that “fracking” is becoming a political “football”. It’s not surprising that opposition to fracking, in principle, has become an election issue in New York, since Governor Cuomo, strongly supported by the environmental lobby, cravenly banned fracking in this state while its residents enjoyed the benefits of low cost natural gas resulting from fracking in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and several southern states. Bernie Sanders’ unsurprising opposition to fracking has further energized his young liberal supporters. Unfortunately, they are unable or unwilling to look at the big picture as discussed in today’s op ed article in the New York times. Hilary Clinton has not yet been pulled strongly in this direction – she says that “fracking will/should only be carried out in some areas – and one can only hope that she will stay the course.
Incontrovertibly, fracking has made the United States much more energy-independent than before. It has resulted in substantially lower natural gas and crude oil prices and it has led to switching a number of power plants from coal to natural gas, thus contributing substantially to a decline in carbon dioxide emissions. Adding wind and solar energy to the mix has brought about a further reduction. So, why are some liberals so opposed to fracking? This generally comes down to three reasons, namely (a) the highly publicized incidents of ground and aquifer contamination by fracking water, (b) the leakage of some methane -a Greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere during the fracking operation and (c) an inherent desire to reduce the use of fossil fuels altogether.
The Obama administration, which is strongly committed to reduction in GHG emissions, has sensibly committed to fracking, but has recognized the need to regulate the use of this technology to lessen the associated problems of water contamination and methane emission. With respect to the former, evidence shows that the incidents of contamination have always been somewhat anecdotal and are now statistically even lower, as companies have adopted best practices and regulators are closely monitoring their operations. As to methane emissions, while methane is a worse actor than carbon dioxide, the volume of methane estimated to have been emitted in 2013 is very much less than that of carbon dioxide so that when all GHG emissions in the U.S. that year are compared on a carbon equivalent basis, carbon dioxide emissions dwarf methane emissions, as shown on the graphic. This topic is covered in more detail in a new blog post by IHRDC called “Perspectives on the Oil and Gas business” written by my Chem Systems colleague Marshall Frank.
Fracking has received broad bipartisan support, with Republicans mostly agreeing with the Obama administration’s positive position on fracking, with states deciding on whether to allow fracking and, if so, how it should be further regulated.
If a vote for Sanders is partly based on his opposition to fracking, liberals who have been strong in supporting a science-based conclusion on global warming (GHGas emissions responsible) should here also look at the facts and recognize that banning this technology will unquestionably raise carbon dioxide emissions, as power plants switch back to coal and new coal-based plants will be built to meet the country’s total power requirements.