The best case for and against a fracking ban

“Though hydraulic fracturing as a technique has been around since the 19th century and the first commercial fracking for gas took place in the 1940s, the most recent fracking boom started in earnest around 2005. That’s when the rising prices of oil and gas forced energy companies to look for other sources, when related techniques like horizontal drilling and low-cost slickwater fracking matured, and new estimates revealed the gargantuan amounts of gas stored in formations like Marcellus Shale.

Fracking has now become the dominant technique for extracting oil and gas in the US.”

“During much of the fracking boom, the US economy grew and emissions declined. One study found that between 2005 and 2012, fracking created 725,000 jobs in the industry, not counting related supporting jobs. “This has been one of the most dynamic parts of the U.S. economy — you’re talking about millions of jobs,” Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit and founder of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told CNBC.

That’s largely due to natural gas from fracking displacing coal in electricity production. Natural gas emits about half of the greenhouse gas emissions of coal per unit of energy. It doesn’t have the massive land footprint that open pit mines or mountaintop removal coal mines do. While it has its own pollution problems, burning natural gas doesn’t produce pollutants like ash and mercury, which can pose health and environmental hazards for years.” 

“Natural gas’s flexibility has also eased the integration of variable renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. When the breezes slow down and clouds form above, natural gas steps in. This has reduced the need for other ways to compensate for intermittency, like energy storage.”

“fracking has helped insulate the US from global economic shocks, particularly in oil markets. US shale oil has provided more than half the growth in global oil supplies, so rising tensions and disruptions in countries like Iran, Libya, and Venezuela have barely moved the needle at the gas pump.”

“natural gas obtained by fracking has reduced emissions, aided the economy, and helped clean energy rise, while costing less than dirtier fuels.”

“while low natural gas prices have helped knock dirty coal off the market, low oil prices driven in part by fracking have encouraged more travel. In fact, transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gases in the US. And after years of decline, US emissions in 2018 rose by 3.4 percent.

Low oil prices have undermined the business case for cleaner transportation alternatives, like electric cars and fuel cell-powered buses. Instead, the United States has experienced a growing appetite for larger, thirstier cars and more air travel.

Meanwhile, low natural gas prices have had some collateral damage for nuclear power, the largest source of clean electricity in the US. Some of the nuclear power plants that have announced early retirements are likely to see their capacity replaced by natural gas. So while replacing coal with natural gas often leads to a reduction in emissions, replacing nuclear energy leads to an increase.

Natural gas itself can also become a climate problem.Methane, the dominant component of natural gas, produces less carbon dioxide than coal when burned. But if methane leaks, which it often does in some quantity during normal gas extraction operations, it becomes a potent greenhouse gas. Over 100 years, a quantity of methane traps more than 25 times the amount of heat compared to a similar amount of carbon dioxide.” 

“then there’s the technique of fracking itself. It requires a massive volume of water. Wells can release toxic chemicals like benzene into the air. Fracking sites can experience explosions and fires. They can contaminate drinking water. More than 17 million people in the US live within a mile of an active fracking well, and research shows that fracking can lead to low birth weight in infants born in that radius.

Many of these environmental risks, on balance, are less than those associated with mining and burning coal. However, the sudden surge in fracking means many people are being confronted with its impacts for the first time, making it a more vivid political concern. That’s in contrast to coal hazards, which are mostly familiar to the public consciousness.”

“when it comes to limiting climate change, a key factor is time. Methane leaked from gas wells can stay in the atmosphere for a decade. Carbon dioxide from burning it can linger for a century. So it is imperative to ramp down greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Yet every new natural gas power plant represents a decades-long commitment to continue using the fuel. That means gas plants will have to install carbon capture systems, which would add to their operating costs and worsen the business case further, or some poor investor is going to be left holding the bag.”

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