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The Politics of Fracking

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 22 September 2012

I got a call last night from the ABC national office to talk about fracking, and the upcoming GlobalFrackdown planned for September 22, 2012. This media contact comes on the heels of an earlier interview from the Associated Press, where they were asking me about the psychology of perceptions regarding fracking. The ABC reporter was interested in a much wider range of issues, including some thoughts about the environmental effects of fracking. I know a little about some of the physical and natural sciences involved, but I needed to do some homework. What follows are some facts, some uncertainties, some analysis, and some opinions about fracking.

The facts. Fracking is a process that requires injecting large amounts of water into shale formations to release natural gas; coalbed-methane mining is a close kin of shale gas. Together, this type of energy production is called "unconventional natural gas production." It is relatively cheap compared to other technologies, and has fueled a boom in natural gas production. According to the Energy Information Administration , shale gas production is expectted to increase from 5.0 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to 13.6 trillion cubic feet in 2035. Shale gas plays are found all over the United States and globally, expanding the relevance of the issue beyond Western public lands. This dramatic increase in natural gas production in last decade or so has increased supply and created lower gas prices. It has also generated a major amount of political controversy.

The uncertainties. There are a lot of opinions about the environmental damages associated with fracking, but in my opinion there is no scientific consensus, and the science is still quite young. The jury is still out--indeed, deliberation has just begun. The level of scientific debate about fracking today is similar to the level of scientific debate about climate change 20 years ago; now there is a much more widespread scientific consensus that climate change is happening. Among the potential environmental effects of fracking are groundwater depletion, groundwater and surface water pollution, habitat destruction (in fact, the effect on endangered species habitat drove a lot of the early debate in places like Powder River Basin in WY), toxic air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and occupational hazards.

If you don't believe me that the science is still young, you can look at a couple of resources on the Internet, including the National Academy of Sciences upcoming health assessment of shale gas production and a paper in Climatic Change that looks at the climate implications. The NAS presentations spend a lot of time discussing lack of data and needed studies, and the climate change paper has a direct comment disputing the analysis. So, scientists are not in agreement on these issues.

Some analysis of the politics. Given the lack of scientific consensus that hearkens back to climate change in the early 1990s, why has fracking generated such a large amount of public outrage as exemplified by the GlobalFrackdown? One answer is the "psychological distance" of fracking is much closer than that of climate change. Fracking has many potentially short-term and dramatic (earthquakes! fire in your faucet! wells going dry!) effects, and concentrated sources. Climate change is longer-term, with more diffuse sources. While the sources of fracking are easily identifiable energy companies (those villians!), the individual decisions by all people are the sources of climate change (it's not MY fault!). Fracking has the additional attributes of being widespread throughout the country, happening on private land in people's backyards, and having an air of secrecy due to energy companies resisting releasing information about their mining processes. All of this makes fracking an issue that is more likely to inflame citizen opinions in comparison to climate change, even though the state of science regarding fracking is way less advanced than the current science around climate change.

Now finally, some opinions. First, despite the emerging science on fracking, I'm betting that some of the environmental effects will turn out to be large and widespread. Maybe not earthquakes, but the the air and water pollution, and environmental footprint of fracking is quite worrisome. There simply is no free lunch when it comes to energy production--there are always some environmental costs. Whenever a new energy source begins to be developed, proponents get excited and say it will solve all our problems, but then environmental costs become more obvious. So I would say that the precautionary principle should be applied to fracking, along with other alternative energy development.

The other thing about fracking that worries me is that it is a supply-side solution. The proponents say we now have a cheap, abundant, and relatively clean-burning source of energy that will help acheive energy independence. The clean-burning argument of course usually does not consider the cradle-to-grave air pollution and climate implications. But it also sends the message to the general citizen that they shouldn't worry about energy conservation--gas is cheap! Keep your lights on! Energy conservation needs to remain a big part of the discussion, and we shouldn't forget the potential economic benefits of energy production such as technogical innovation in energy efficient technology.

I don't pretend these opinions will be shared by everybody, but I'm happy to put them out there for now, to spur debate, and see how they stand up to the test of time as the fracking issue continues to unfold.