Report: Environmentalists Opposing Shale Gas Are Making a ‘Tragic Mistake’

A report released today puts the folly of anti-fracking activism squarely in the spotlight. The report, authored primarily by University of California-Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller, comes to a sobering conclusion: “Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”

The reason is because natural gas provides a solution for two major worldwide environmental concerns: air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For its ability to provide an affordable energy source that can also address these problems, the authors conclude that “shale gas is a wonderful gift that has arrived just in time.”

The report focuses heavily on the local air quality benefits of shale gas, which could be especially effective in places like China that have rapidly growing economies, and by extension a great need for affordable and abundant energy.  As the report notes, shale gas “provides a solution to the pollution,” observing it’s “amazing” that local air quality benefits are “not more widely addressed by environmentalists.”

The report focuses mostly on shale gas and local air quality, but the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions made possible by shale gas is also addressed. The authors find that “both global warming and air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas,” owing to the fuel’s ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, as well as low methane leakage rates (more on that later).

In addition to firmly establishing the environmental benefits of natural gas, the also report addresses a number of anti-fracking activists’ objections to responsible shale development, concluding that they are not credible: “These concerns are either largely false or can be addressed by appropriate regulation.”

While the authors express some concern about the volumes of water required for hydraulic fracturing, they explain that “viable alternatives exist,” including the fact that “most of the water that flows back from the well can be treated and reused.”  As an example, the report points to Apache, a company that has made news recently for its dramatic reduction in water use:

“[T]hey [Apache] eliminated fresh water use in fracking operations in Irion County, Texas; this year they have used only recycled produced water from fracking operations and oil fields together with brackish water obtained from the Santa Rosa formation at 800 to 900 feet depth [Reuters 2013]. In all of Apache’s hydraulic fracturing operations in the Permian Basin, more than half the water is sourced from non-fresh water sources, about 900 wells” (p. 6-7).

Of course, as we’ve pointed out many times, water recycling is quickly becoming standard operating procedure. In Pennsylvania alone, Marcellus producers are now recycling 90 percent of their flowback water, and that’s a trend we’re increasingly seeing elsewhere across the country.

Regarding anti-fracking activists’ claims on flaming faucets and the fraud of Gasland, the authors offer a scathing but entirely justified critique:

“The famous ‘flaming faucets’ shown in the movie Gasland (and on YouTube) were not due to fracking, despite what that movie suggests. The accounts were investigated by state environmental agencies, and in every case traced to methane-saturated ground water produced by shallow bacteria. Indeed, the movie FrackNation includes a clip in which the Gasland producer, writer, and star Josh Fox admits that flaming faucets were common long before fracking was ever tried” (p. 7).

The report states that any risk of leakage is “not particularly linked to shale gas wells.” It’s also clear that whatever risks there may be to drinking water supplies, they are manageable: “The solution lies in regulating shale at least as stringently as conventional oil and gas,” the report states.

As for activists’ claim that methane emissions during development cancel out the climate benefits of natural gas, the report says that’s simply wrong:

“The initial scare of the danger of ‘fugitive’ (leaked) methane came from mistaken use of the fact that its ‘greenhouse potential’ is 83 times that of CO2, kilogram per kilogram. That makes it seem that even 1% leakage would undo its advantage over coal. But if you take into account the fact that methane is rapidly destroyed in the atmosphere (with a much shorter lifetime than CO2), then the potency is reduced to about 34 times. And the fact that methane weighs less (molecule per molecule) than CO2 means that leaked methane is only 12 times more potent for the same energy produced.  Because natural gas power plants are more efficient than those of coal, even with leakage rate of up to 17% (far higher than even the most pessimistic estimates), natural gas still provides a greenhouse gas improvement over coal for the same electricity produced” (p. 8).

This is yet another rebuke of the research of Cornell anti-fracking activist Anthony Ingraffea, who has bizarrely claimed that natural gas is a “gangplank” to irreversible global warming.  Dr. Muller has offered harsh criticism for Ingraffea’s work before (in the New York Times, no less), so it’s unsurprising that he identifies a series of flaws in the infamous Howarth/Ingraffea methane paper:

“However, Howarth’s original work made assumptions for parameters that were not directly measured, and many of these were ‘conservative estimates’ – which means prejudicial against natural gas. It took two years, but finally a calibrated study of 190 wells showed that the leakage from shale gas production averaged about 0.4%. [Allen, 2013; Hausfather & Muller 2013]. If we add in leakage in pipelines and storage, the maximum is still only 1.4%, and the greenhouse advantage over coal is large. A recent report by Miller et al. [2013] suggests the rate could be twice that; but even if this new report is more accurate than the EPA value, fugitive methane is still a vast greenhouse gas improvement compared to coal” (p. 8).

On seismicity, the Muller report notes, “No large earthquakes have been associated with fracking but rather with ‘disposal wells’.” Further, such seismic activity from wastewater disposal is already being mitigated by the surge in water recycling: “We can prevent disposal earthquakes by recycling water to minimize injection volumes and by taking care in the choice of disposal well locations.”

Finally, the report offers yet another blow to anti-fracking activists who contend that natural gas will somehow ‘crowd out’ renewables:

“Yet cheap natural gas can also make it easier for solar and wind energy to further penetrate electricity markets by providing the rapid back-up that those intermittent sources require. In addition, natural gas is the only base load fuel that can be downscaled into microgrids and distributed generation networks to provide that same flexibility and reliability for solar energy on rooftops and in buildings, expanding the market for urban solar systems. Particularly for areas focusing on distributed generation, natural gas can be an enabler of wind and solar” (p. 9-10).

To sum up: the report finds that shale gas “can be the solution” for addressing air pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the numerous objections to fracking put forth by activists are simply not credible.  As the report puts it, environmental groups should “recognize the shale gas revolution as beneficial to society – and lend their full support to helping it advance.”


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