Sundown for Krugman

Another day, another misrepresentation of natural gas in the New York Times.

As you know, we’ve spent considerable time debunking articles in the New York Times that question the benefits and safety of natural gas production, particularly as it relates to hydraulic fracturing. Unfortunately, the folks at the Times still haven’t gotten the message.

This week, Paul Krugman used one of his weekly columns to extol the future of solar power, but not before baselessly demonizing shale gas development.

Speaking of propaganda: Before I get to solar, let’s talk briefly about hydraulic fracturing, a k a fracking.

Fracking — injecting high-pressure fluid into rocks deep underground, inducing the release of fossil fuels — is an impressive technology. But it’s also a technology that imposes large costs on the public. We know that it produces toxic (and radioactive) wastewater that contaminates drinking water; there is reason to suspect, despite industry denials, that it also contaminates groundwater; and the heavy trucking required for fracking inflicts major damage on roads.

First and foremost, let’s give Mr. Krugman some credit. He does refer to hydraulic fracturing as an “impressive technology,” which it most certainly is. Unfortunately for Mr. Krugman and his readers, though, it’s all downhill from there.

Regarding the “toxic (and radioactive) wastewater that contaminates drinking water,” Krugman is blatantly misstating the facts or, at best, ignoring a key feature of areas where shale gas production is taking place: naturally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, which can be found on the surface or deep underground.

Claims about radiation have been made before (by, naturally, the New York Times), but both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Geological Survey have found that this is largely a natural phenomenon, not the result of some nefarious gas industry activity, and any radiation is at or below background levels that are no threat to human health. An examination by a water utility in western Pennsylvania also found no radioactive contaminants in the local water supply.

In fact, earlier this year the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) made the following conclusion about NORM in its assessment of future hydraulic fracturing in the state: “Based upon currently available information it is anticipated that flowback water would not contain levels of NORM of significance,” adding that this “does not present a risk to workers because the external radiation levels are very low.”

Krugman then asserts, notwithstanding the facts, that there is “reason to suspect” that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater. The reality, though, is that hydraulic fracturing has been used more than 1.2 million times and there has not been a single confirmed case of groundwater contamination. If Krugman thinks otherwise, then his argument is not only with state regulators from across the country, but also with President Obama’s own administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, who has testified that she is “not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

As for the “major damage” that Krugman cites, this claim is, like all the others in this op-ed, misstating reality. Again, the situation in Pennsylvania is instructive, as companies in that state over the past three years have invested more than $400 million in local and state roads. This type of commitment not only guarantees that impacts are minimized, but also that problems can be fixed with paid-for repairs.

And what does Krugman believe is the best alternative to clean, affordable, and reliable natural gas? Solar power, which is currently far more expensive (and significantly less reliable) than natural gas. Krugman says that its price is declining, but his argument that “we’re just a few years from the point” when electricity from solar becomes cost competitive contradicts well-regarded data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA’s levelized cost of electricity generation shows that solar is between $211 and $312 per megawatt hour. Combined cycle natural gas generation, however, is between $62 and $65 per megawatt hour, while conventional coal generation is listed at $95 per megawatt hour.

Krugman argues that the current price disparity is due to fossil fuels not being “priced” correctly, which is another way of lamenting the fact that there is no price on carbon. If we had a carbon tax or cap and trade regime, Krugman believes, “it’s likely that we would already have passed [the] tipping point” of price parity between solar and conventional power sources.

But here’s the kicker: EIA’s data actually incorporates a de facto price on carbon by artificially inflating the costs of GHG-intensive technologies (as a carbon tax or cap and trade regime would do). The assumptions in EIA’s data include this important nugget:

Although currently there is no Federal legislation in place that restricts greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, regulators and the investment community have continued to push energy companies to invest in technologies that are less GHG-intensive. The trend is captured in the AEO2011 Reference case through a 3-percentage-point increase in the cost of capital when evaluating investments in new coal-fired power plants, new coal-to-liquids (CTL), and coal and biomass-to-liquids (CBTL) plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Natural gas is easily the most affordable electricity option, but even Krugman’s attempt to suggest that solar would be cost competitive with coal if we “priced coal-fired power right” doesn’t come close to representing what objective data shows. And as Robert Bryce points out in his own debunking of Krugman’s op-ed, carbon pricing may not even be the most effective way of reducing emissions:

According to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. is now cutting emissions faster than Europe, even though the EU has instituted an elaborate carbon-reduction scheme. Why is this happening? It’s not due to increased domestic use of wind or solar. Instead, it’s simple economics. Cheap natural gas is displacing higher-carbon coal in the U.S. electricity-generation fleet. That option is not available in Europe, where natural-gas prices are more than two times those of the U.S.

Krugman ends by saying hydraulic fracturing “is not a dream come true,” which is a subjective assessment but one that should nonetheless be scrutinized. Just take a stroll through Pennsylvania and you’ll see that responsible natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale is revitalizing local economies and creating jobs at an incredible pace. Development of the Barnett Shale in Texas has created over 100,000 jobs. And thanks to the affordability of natural gas, residents in the Northeast are enjoying lower monthly utility bills — a testament to hydraulic fracturing and the shale revolution it has helped create.

For those who make a living bashing the benefits of natural gas, hydraulic fracturing is indeed far from a dream come true, as it makes their job of claiming natural gas is too dirty and too expensive that much harder. But for the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people who are reaping countless benefits, shale gas development has indeed been an enormous blessing.

Prior to submitting his column for publication, perhaps Mr. Krugman should have consulted his fellow New York Times columnist David Brooks.


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