Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in a range of publications, from Science to Smithsonian. Since 2004, he’s been an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. You can find him on Twitter here.
When it comes to climate change, the bad news pummels you the way Mike Tyson, in his prime, pummeled opponents into submission. The onslaught is so relentless that sometimes I just want to crumple into a heap and yell: Make it stop! The latest beat-down, for example, is news of the record ice shrinkage in the Arctic. That seems to have shaken up a lot of people.
But before everyone sinks into catatonic despair, I want to return to a recent piece of stunningly good news on the climate front. Perhaps you saw the headline several weeks ago: “U.S. carbon emissions drop to 20-year low.”
Alas, there was a catch. The biggest reason for the decline, as the AP reported, “is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal.”
If this isn’t the definition of quandary, I don’t know what is. Gas emits much less carbon than coal (probably between 25% and 50% less), which is a net plus on the global warming ledger. And shale gas, in case you hadn’t heard, is entering a golden age; it is abundant and newly retrievable across the world, not just in the United States. It’s the bridge fuel to a clean energy future that liberal think tanks and university researchers were touting just a few years ago. Given the political stalemate on climate change, one energy expert gushed in a recent NYT op-ed: “Shale gas to the rescue.”
But a grassroots backlash to the relatively new technology (hydraulic fracturing) that unlocks shale gas has set in motion powerful forces opposed to this bridge getting built. Leading climate campaigners, citing concerns about industry practices and continued reliance on fossil fuels (even if less carbon intensive), are now a big part of the growing anti-fracking coalition. Mainstream environmentalists have also jumped on that bandwagon.
Thus the battle lines are drawn, with enviros and climate activists digging in their heels against a shale gas revolution that could pay big climate dividends. This is a story in of itself. Now a new twist promises to make it even more interesting. Earlier this week, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and New York City mayor, gave the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) a $6 million grant for its work “to minimize the environmental impacts of natural gas operations through hydraulic fracturing.” The grant follows on the heels of a Washington Post op-ed that Bloomberg co-authored with a gas industry executive. In the piece, they champion the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas, while also calling for more stringent fracking rules and better industry practices.
Bloomberg’s foray into the gas issue complements the $50 million he gave last year to the Sierra Club, to support its nationwide anti-coal initiative. But his embrace of natural gas as a substitute for coal puts him at odds with many establishment greens. EDF President Fred Krupp, for his part, seems to be straddling that divide. The announcement of Bloomberg’s grant to EDF included this statement from Krupp: “There is a path forward for natural gas production if we get it right—but that’s a big if. The Mayor is helping to chart that path forward.”
Whether the gas industry can frack responsibly is an important question that needs resolution. But an equally important one is whether climate campaigners and greens can embrace the path being charted by EDF and Bloomberg. For that to happen, several salient issues will have to be satisfactorily addressed. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put his finger on one when, earlier this month, he wondered if the shale boom will “undermine new investments in wind, solar, nuclear and energy efficiency systems—which have zero emissions—and thus keep us addicted to fossil fuels for decades.” Climate and energy experts have similar concerns.
And cheap, bountiful shale gas may be less noxious than coal, but it will still be heating up the atmosphere well into the century. Michael Lemonick at Climate Central doesn’t find this to be an appealing path. He writes:
As scientists Ken [Caldeira] and Nathan Myhrvold showed in a paper earlier this year, gas can ultimately cut emissions, but during the time you’re building the plants—a process that itself takes substantial energy—you’ve added so much more CO2 to the air that, as Myhrvold told Climate Central, “It’s like living on a credit card. It’s easy to get into a situation where it will take years and years to pay back.” It’s not just the CO2, either: drilling for natural gas releases substantial amounts of methane, which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
But if shale gas is at least moving us in the right direction (i.e., lower carbon emissions) doesn’t that count for something? Energy analyst Michael Levi thinks so, though he is also cautious about just how far it can take us:
Natural gas can do a lot to bend the U.S. emissions curve over the coming years. In even the medium run, though, simply moving from coal to gas is not a substitute for broader policy…Best to think of gas as a climate opportunity – to forestall construction of long-lived and highly polluting infrastructure, to make carbon capture and sequestration cheaper, to balance intermittent renewable sources – rather than as a solution in itself.
The global gas outlook is also unclear. In the UK and Europe, prospects are not as sunny as in the United States. But in China, now the world’s number one emitter of carbon emissions (due, in large part, to its heavy coal usage), there is tremendous potential for the country to make a U.S.-like shift to natural gas, as Andy Revkin recently explored at Dot Earth. In that post, there is a really smart and nuanced big picture take on the shale gas/climate nexus by University of California professor David Victor, author of the 2011 book, Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet. At Dot Earth, Victor says that,
the gas revolution is a reminder that for most countries facts on the ground will have a much bigger impact on emissions that international diplomatic agreements. As diplomats look for new agreements they need treaties that are a lot more flexible and adjustable to these on-the-ground realities. Treaties based on rigid emission targets and timetables—as in the Kyoto treaty—stand little chance of working.
But he also acknowledges that “if gas is to be a real ‘bridge’ to a low-emission future rather than a nice-looking dead end, then we must seriously explore ways to further cut emissions from gas plants.” Perhaps EDF and Michael Bloomberg can team up on that worthy goal—after they help make fracking more environmentally responsible and convince their fellow greens that they have charted a viable a path to a low-carbon energy future.