This week, several news outlets reported that twenty of the nation’s “top climate scientists” sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown telling him that hydraulic fracturing in California would be detrimental to the state’s commitment to combating climate change. (We’re supposed to ignore that they have never before raised a fuss in the 50 years hydraulic fracturing has been occurring here, apparently.)
In the letter, which was generated by the Center for Biological Diversity (classic press release fodder!), these “top climate scientists” engage in outright denial of well-established science.
Before getting into the claims, let’s first consider the sources. Here are some of the “top” scientists who signed the letter:
- Paul Ehrlich, whose predictive powers originated in the 1960s when he said the world was going to overpopulate and we were all going to die of starvation by 1980. We didn’t, by the way.
- Anthony Ingraffea and Robert Howarth, whose claims about methane emissions from shale development have received (to put it politely) wide criticism from the actual scientific community. Even President Obama’s former Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist), said of Ingraffea’s and Howarth’s work: “we didn’t think it was credible.”
- James Hansen, an activist who regularly gets himself arrested at environmentalist rallies. Hansen is also retiring from his position as a scientist, presumably so he can explore more creative ways to waste police resources. (The New York Times explains Hansen’s move as “giving himself more freedom to pursue political and legal efforts to limit greenhouse gases,” which has clearly already begun.) In reviewing a book that advocated population control and claimed the need to “rid the world of Industrial Civilization,” Hansen said the author “has it right.”
- Ken Caldeira, who has written such gems like “As the natural gas plant spews CO2 into the atmosphere, we are supposed to be grateful that they didn’t shoot the dog.” To be fair, Caldeira’s bigger point was that we need to build more renewables instead of natural gas plants – even though the renewables industry itself says we should be building more natural gas plants.
- Shaye Wolf, who is the climate science director of … the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The Center’s own commitment to science is dubious, given that its executive director famously proclaimed: “the core talent of a successful environmental activist is not science and law,” but rather “campaigning instinct.” He added that CBD is “more interested in hiring philosophers, linguists and poets.”
You might be asking, “Okay, so they’ve said and done some unsavory and pretty silly things. But are their accusations in this instance valid?” The answer is no. Let’s have a look:
CBD Letter: “Shale gas and tight oil development is likely to worsen climate disruption, which could harm California’s efforts to be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions… Research suggests that large quantities of methane are leaked during shale gas and tight oil development processes.”
FACT: No it isn’t. This claim comes primarily from two of the authors of the letter, Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea. Neither is a climate scientist, but real climate scientists did feel the need to respond to their accusations.
Raymond Pierrehumbert University of Chicago said that Ingraffea’s work is “a matter of distorting the science in order to support a preconceived political agenda.” Richard Muller of the University of California at Berkeley also weighed in, saying you can use Ingraffea’s methods “if you want to make methane leakage sound scarier than it really is.” When asked for his response to Ingraffea’s claims, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations asked rhetorically, “Is there value in debating people who don’t want to think?”
Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has said that it is an “incorrect statement” to suggest that natural gas is a net negative in terms of shifting to a lower carbon economy. The Obama administration has touted natural gas development as a source of clean power, with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy saying: “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.”
EPA’s most recent data on greenhouse gas emissions shows that methane emissions are well below the threshold for natural gas to maintain its greenhouse gas benefits. In fact, U.S. natural gas production has grown an amazing 40 percent since 1990, but methane emissions have fallen by about 11 percent. Experts at the Department of Energy, MIT, the University of Maryland, and the Breakthrough Institute have all debunked the alarmist leakage rates envisioned by Howarth and Ingraffea. Even a study underwritten by the Sierra Club found their research to be “biased” and “wrong.”
The proof is all around us, too. The United States is leading the world in carbon dioxide emission reductions, primarily thanks to the increased utilization of natural gas, which would never be possible without hydraulic fracturing. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) emissions from the United States dropped by 3.8 percent and, as the organization put it, “One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.”
Finally, lest you think this is just about natural gas, and not oil (California’s Monterey Shale is potentially the largest shale oil reserve in the United States), President Obama made this statement in his remarks yesterday:
“[W]e invested in new American technologies to reverse our addiction to foreign oil, double wind power, double solar power, produce more oil, produce more natural gas, and do it all in a way that is actually bringing down some of our pollution, making our entire economy more energy-efficient.”
The “methane leak” talking point is just that: a talking point. It’s also not a particularly good one, since it’s verifiably false.
CBD Letter: “Studies suggest that shale tight oil and gas development can also increase levels of ground-level ozone due to emissions of ozone precursor emissions such as volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, a key risk factor for asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Other air pollution emissions from shale development, including diesel particulate matter, benzene, and aliphatic hydrocarbons may contribute to health problems among populations living near oil and gas development sites.”
FACT: No it doesn’t. Once again, the facts are freely available to the CBD, but it doesn’t seem interested in them.
Reports by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Pennsylvania and West Virginia Departments of Environmental Protection have all found no credible health risks associated with shale development. In fact, many studies have concluded that shale gas development is rapidly clearing the air of pollutants, which is a boon to public health. In Texas, regulators found that as Barnett Shale production grew exponentially over the last decade, ozone levels actually declined in the region.
The American Lung Association recently gave several counties in the heart of the Bakken Shale oil boom an “A” grade for low air pollution. ALA added that its methodology may not have captured all of the impacts of local shale development, but if the threat was even close to what activists have claimed, there’s simply no way those counties would have received a passing grade, much less a stellar one.
Most recently, a draft report published by UK’s Department of Health found that the public health risks from shale development are low. You can read more about how anti-fracking activists routinely deny science on public health by clicking here.
CBD Letter: “In addition to its climate change and pollution impacts, shale development poses other threats to California. Shale tight oil and gas development requires large quantities of water.”
FACT: Hydraulic fracturing in California uses a fraction of the water required elsewhere in the country. An average hydraulic fracturing job in California in 2012 used 116,000 gallons of water. The CBD likes to pretend that is a lot, but many industries account for a far larger share of total water use. A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that hydraulic fracturing accounts for less than one percent of water usage in areas where it occurs – and this includes other shale plays where millions of gallons per fracturing job are often used.
Water issues are always important in California, but the fact is that, owing to our unique geology, we just don’t fracture that many wells. For some perspective, a little more than 500 wells were fractured in California last year, out of more than 2,500 total wells drilled. At 116,000 gallons of water per well, that means that all of the hydraulic fracturing that took place in our state last year used as much water as the state’s golf courses used in 12 hours (golf courses average about 320,000 gallons per day).
More importantly, as the AP recently reported, water recycling has become a central focus of the oil and gas industry. According to the AP: “Recycling is rapidly becoming a popular and economic solution for a burgeoning industry,” which means even less water use.
Consider what’s happening just in Pennsylvania alone: According to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, between 2008 and 2011, 61.3 percent of wastewater was recycled or reused. By 2012, that number rose to 86.1 percent and, in just the first half of 2013, 90 percent of flowback water was reused or recycled.
CBD Letter: “Finally, the process is very poorly regulated and exempt from many of our strongest federal environmental laws including the Safe Drinking Water Act and important provisions of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.”
FACT: As we’ve clearly explained before, the cries of “exemption” for hydraulic fracturing are way off base. First of all, saying the process is “exempt” from the Safe Drinking Water Act is to suggest that SDWA was designed to cover hydraulic fracturing. It wasn’t, and it has never covered the process.
Don’t believe us? In 1995, then EPA administrator Carol Browner said this:
“EPA does not regulate – and does not believe it is legally required to regulate – the hydraulic fracturing of methane gas production wells under its UIC program.”
(The “UIC program” is the Underground Injection Control program, the part of SDWA that critics have alleged should apply to hydraulic fracturing.)
The EPA also added:
“EPA’s position is that the fracturing of methane gas production wells is not an injection operation subject to regulation under the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.”
Here’s a question for the CBD: How can you be exempt from something that never covered you in the first place?
As for the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has affirmed that these laws apply to shale development. Are there aspects that state regulators enforce instead of the EPA? Yes. Are there areas of development where state regulation, not federal control, is what’s enforced? Yes. Is it deceptive to claim shale and hydraulic fracturing are “exempt” from federal laws? Yes.
The CBD is good at generating press releases. One may even admire its single-minded devotion to ideology, even when facts and science scream out in contradiction of what they’re claiming. Unfortunately, scaring policymakers and citizens by pretending to have fidelity to science is actually only killing jobs, hamstringing economic growth, and preventing the very environmental protection that the CBD claims to support. But hey at least they scored some headlines, right?
**UPDATE: Just weeks after CBD unveiled its letter, 21 leading scientists and experts wrote to Governor Brown explaining that hydraulic fracturing is a safe process with manageable risks. They also noted that responsible oil and natural gas development delivers enormous economic benefits, including lower energy costs for people living on low and fixed incomes. The full letter can be found here.