by Richard Schiffman
The recent boom in fracking has turned America into the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, almost overnight.
Proponents say that this burgeoning industry has ensured U.S. energy independence for years to come, and created a more climate-friendly alternative to dirtier-burning fuels like coal and gas. It has arguably also hastened the demise of the coal industry, as power plants switch in large numbers to the cheaper gas, resulting in U.S. CO2 emissions sinking to their lowest levels in nearly two decades. And with less smog-producing particulates and deadly mercury in the air, we can hope that respiratory illnesses like asthma may begin to decline.
But fracking poses its own risks. While our air has been getting cleaner, opponents argue that America’s water has been getting dirtier as the result of the hydraulic fracturing of shale. Fracking uses lots of water—up to seven million gallons for every well drilled—which is mixed together with sand and a witch’s brew of industrial chemicals, then blasted a mile into the earth to the shale formations where the natural gas is located. This high pressure stream shatters the rock and releases the gas, which geysers up to the surface to be recovered.
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.
By Keith Kloor, 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.
Greens are often mocked as self-righteous, hybrid-driving, politically correct foodies these days (see this episode of South Park and this scene from Portlandia.) But it wasn’t that long ago—when Earth First and Earth Liberation were in the headlines—that greens were perceived as militant activists. They camped out in trees to stop clear-cutting and intercepted whaling ships and oil and gas rigs on the high seas.
In recent years, a new forceful brand of green activism has come back into vogue. One action (carried out with Monkey Wrenching flair) became a touchstone for the nascent climate movement. In 2011, climate activists engaged in a multi-day civil disobedience event that has since turned a proposed oil pipeline into a rallying cause for American environmental groups.
This, combined with grassroots opposition to gas fracking, has energized the sagging global green movement. But though activist greens have frequently claimed to stand behind science, their recent actions, especially in regard to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, say otherwise.
For instance, whether all the claims of fracking’s environmental contamination are true remains to be decided. (There are legitimate ecological and health issues—but also overstated ones. See this excellent Popular Mechanics deconstruction of all the “bold claims made about hydraulic fracturing.”) Meanwhile, an ancillary debate over natural gas and climate change has broken out, further inflaming an already combustible issue. Whatever the outcome, it’s likely that science will matter less than the politics, as often is the case in such debates.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to GMOs, which have been increasingly targeted by green-minded activists in Europe. The big story on this front of late has been the planned act of vandalism on the government-funded Rothamsted research station in the UK. Scientists there are testing an insect-resistant strain of genetically modified wheat that is objectionable to an anti-GMO group called Take the Flour Back. The attack on the experimental wheat plot is slated for May 27. The group explains that it intends to destroy the plot because “this open air trial poses a real, serious and imminent contamination threat to the local environment and the UK wheat industry.”