Plus a map of ‘Fraccidents’ around the U.S.
Two years ago, ClimateProgress started writing about shale gas as a potential game changer in the energy and climate arena. Since then its potential has only grown, but so too has the scrutiny of its local and global impact.
The humorous video below – put together by the investigative reporting team at ProPublica – is a great intro to the controversy:
So is shale gas a bridge to a clean energy future — or a bridge to nowhere?
On one hand, some, like Oxford Fellow Dieter Helm, call shale gas a “glint of hope” for reducing our dependence on coal and creating a bridge to renewables. According to a recent Bloomberg story, Helm said this week that the switch from coal to natural gas in the U.S., China and India, could halve CO2 emissions in the next couple of decades:
“Cheap and abundant shale gas ‘is the first glint of hope in the climate change debate,’ Helm said. Europe should shut coal stations, build gas-fired ones and concentrate on bringing on alternative carbon-free technologies after 2030, he said.”
However, depressed natural gas prices have been blamed for stalling wind, solar PV and solar hot water projects that compete directly with the resource. While a cleaner-burning form of energy like natural gas is much better than burning coal, focusing too heavily on the resource may delay aggressive development of renewable energy. Helm admits this:
“Low gas prices due to abundant shale resources will keep renewables such as wind power ‘out of the market’ for many years and subsidies for renewable generation will be needed for longer than people expect, Helm said.”
That’s a hard one to swallow. Yes, natural gas is cleaner. But the consequences of delaying the transition to carbon-free technologies are potentially disastrous.
There’s also the question of whether shale gas is truly “clean” or “sustainable.” Although gas burns cleaner, the fracking method – which uses hazardous chemicals and reportedly pollutes groundwater in communities – is a potential danger to the environment and human health. The image below from Earth Justice shows the number of “Fraccidents” around the U.S. (click the image to use the interactive map.)
Each of the symbols below represents a fraccident: Reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, industrial disasters and explosions from hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
The folks at the investigative organization ProPublica have been following the environmental and health impacts of procuring shale gas, releasing a number of stories showing that, despite industry claims to the contrary, fracking operations are having a negative impact in some communities hosting drilling operations. (For a spectacular piece on the consequences of fracking, read ProPublica’s piece: “Hydrofracked? One Man’s Mystery Leads to a Backlash Against Natural Gas Drilling.”)
And then there’s this piece, released earlier this week, highlighting a report from Duke University that scientifically proved a connection between drinking water contamination and fracking:
“The peer-reviewed study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stands to shape the contentious debate over whether drilling is safe and begins to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks.
The research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, strongly implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.”
The gas industry shot back, saying that the data was “inconclusive.”
Unsurprisingly, as the Houston Chronicle reports, “Republican lawmakers and state regulators blasted the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to broadly study the controversial hydraulic fracturing process that is essential to unlocking natural gas from shale formations across the U.S.”
Meanwhile, a major project in Pennsylvania led by Chesapeake Energy is still on hold due to a blown out well that spilled hydraulic fracturing fluid into a nearby body of water – just one of dozens reported incidents of fouled waterways around the country. So, is natural gas really a clean alternative? It’s cleaner than the dirtiest stuff we burn now — coal. But is that really the standard we want to uphold?
– Stephen Lacey