TRNN Debate: Can Fracking Help The U.S. Move Away From Fossil Fuel Consumption?
Editor Joe Romm and Professor Ken Carlson discuss whether fracking can be a clean and safe source of energy and if it can help transition the country towards renewable energy resources
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
The United States is in the middle of a new energy rush for natural gas. You probably heard of the process called fracking. But what you might not know is where these fracking sites are. According to an independent oil and gas research group, FracTracker, there are more than 1.1 million active oil and gas wells across 36 states, with Texas leading the race with more than 300,000 active wells. President Obama has touted fracking as a cleaner bridge energy source, the idea being that America will move away from coal and foreign oil and move towards greener renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Here’s what he had to say in his speech on the environment and energy last year at Georgetown University.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Now, even as we’re producing more domestic oil, we’re also producing more cleaner-burning natural gas than any other country on Earth. And, again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.
DESVARIEUX: So here to discuss and debate whether fracking is in fact, as the president says, safe, cheap power that can help reduce our carbon emissions are our two guests.
We have joining us Dr. Ken Carlson. He’s a professor in civil and environmental engineering, and he directs the Center for Water Energy Sustainability at the CSU Energy Institute.
As well, joining us is Joe Romm. He is the chief science adviser for Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously. He’s also the founding editor of ClimateProgress.org.
Thank you both for joining us.
JOE ROMM, FOUNDING EDITOR, CLIMATEPROGRESS.ORG: Thanks for having us.
KEN CARLSON, PROF. ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING, COLORADO STATE UNIV.: Glad to be here.
DESVARIEUX: So let’s jump right into this and bring up a recent study from Purdue University. It basically found out that methane emissions from fracking is 100 to 1,000 times higher than the EPA estimates. Methane, as you both know, is considered to be a much more harmful greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide, because it hangs around the atmosphere 25 times longer. If you’re concerned about climate change–and a lot of our audience really is–I want to ask you, Ken, considering these finding and other studies that have talked about this, can we really consider fracking a safe power source, even in the medium term or long term, as a way to reduce climate change?
CARLSON: Well, I think hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is used to extract a particular fuel source, and that being oil and gas. Yet (excuse me) natural gas has been used as a fuel for a long time, and it’s used extensively around the world currently. And it doesn’t come from fracking in any country except for the United States.
So the broader question is: how effective is natural gas as a fuel source going forward? And methane leakage is certainly one of the issues that I think we are concerned about, people should be concerned about. But I would argue that it’s an engineering problem, it’s a technical problem that with attention to detail and maybe resources and some monitoring we can reduce to minimum levels.
DESVARIEUX: I’m going to ask Joe. Do you think it’s just a matter of us not having the proper technology to mitigate some of these risks?
ROMM: Well, I think the first and foremost problem is that, you know, we now know, the scientists keep telling us, and they just issued a couple more reports that human-caused climate change is affecting every continent on the globe. It’s making our weather more extreme. It’s raising sea levels. And we’re not doing a very good job of dealing with it so far. And it’s just going to keep getting worse and worse until we cut the use of coal, oil, and natural gas.
So I think first and foremost what we need is some price for carbon pollution that represents its cost to humans and the environment. And right now, people just use the air as an open, you know, cesspool to dump their carbon dioxide. So until we price carbon dioxide correctly, we’re going to overuse all the fossil fuels–coal, oil, and natural gas.
The other specific issue for fracking is this issue of leakage, because natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. It traps more than 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does over a 20-year period. So you don’t need very much methane leaking out before you’ve wiped out any benefit of, let’s say, converting a coal plant to gas plant. And the study you referred to and many other studies, including a Stanford study that actually looked at 200 previous studies on this point, all said that methane is leaking at a rate much higher than either the EPA or the natural gas industry, you know, has been willing to admit and that it is, you know, at the level where it can totally undermine any benefit of switching from coal to natural gas.
DESVARIEUX: So, yeah, Ken, Joe makes a good point: if it’s leaking this much, can we continue to be investing so heavily in fracking, even if we don’t have the technology? Shouldn’t we put the brakes on fracking a bit?
CARLSON: Well, I think Joe brings up a very good point about market remedies to the excessive carbon issue is when you frame the question can we do this, we will do it in our society as long as it’s advantageous–as long as market forces are pushing to us to do that. And if there are these climate risks and issues, then they should be priced into the cost of using this fuel.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. I want to talk about how we could actually move away from using technologies like fracking and oil and things of that nature. And I’m going to turn to you, Joe, because suppose the question is always, you know, is it even feasible to immediately transition to renewable energy. Essentially, our infrastructure really depends on this. Would we be able to survive without an energy source like fracking?
ROMM: Well, I think that the good news is that the key clean energy technologies, particularly solar power and wind power, have come down dramatically in price, and many other countries are using renewable energy for a much larger fraction of electricity than we are. So, you know, we don’t have to get off of fossil fuels tomorrow.
The question is: can we increase the use of clean energy and basically slowly get off of fossil fuels over the next few decades with existing technology and with the technology as it is projected to improve in the coming decades? And I think that there are many, many experts who think so. I worked at the Department of Energy back in the 1990s. I was acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy. So I spent a lot of time working with the businesses that develop clean energy and deploy clean energy, and I, you know, have no doubt whatsoever that we can, you know, start a process of cutting fossil fuel consumption steadily over the next few decades.
DESVARIEUX: What’s your take on that, Ken?
CARLSON: Largely I don’t disagree with Joe at all. I would like to add a few things.
To me this has moved beyond an issue in the United States that we can cut our carbon emissions to zero. And we’ve influenced the concern not a whole lot. China now emits almost half of the world’s greenhouse gases, and last year there were statistics like they were putting a gigawatt coal plant in every week. Russia–I wanted to bring this up on the methane leakage, which I believe we can make great progress on that in this country. But we’ve still get Russia that is–their economy relies on oil and gas. And their commitment and their ability to reduce methane leakage there is much less than ours.
And then another country–well, there’s Iran and Qatar that are also big natural gas exporters–tremendous amounts of methane leakage. They don’t even really make an effort effort to control methane leakage current because it’s such a low commodity price.
So I think what Joe said is largely correct, according to me, but I think you need to look at it globally: how can the United States influence what happens in these other carbon-producing countries so that we can get the end result we want?
DESVARIEUX: Well, let’s just focus on the United States just for this debate, because I think it is important for us that–we can only be accountable, really, for ourselves here as American citizens. So let’s talk specifically about the United States. If we were to move towards more renewable energies, how would you propose doing it? I hear you, Joe, on its possible and you’ve spoken to experts, but I want to hear specifics. How would we do it?
ROMM: Sure. Well, you know, one piece of good news is that the U.S. economy has–becoming a lot more efficient. The president and the automakers have been aggressively pushing fuel-efficient vehicles and expanding those programs to the point where we’re actually using less oil for transportation then we were a few years ago. And so that efficiency can get you, let’s say, part of the way. And we’ve also slowed the growth of electricity demand by using efficiency. And I mean efficient motors, insulation, efficient lighting. LED lighting is the next generation of lighting. You’re going to see that just continue and continue.
At the same time, then, you slowly increase the fraction of your electricity that comes from, let’s say, solar power and wind power. And then the other thing you do, which some companies have started to do, where you are using more electric vehicles–plug-in hybrid vehicles that can plug run on both gasoline and electricity, like General Motors and Ford and some others have, and then pure electric cars, which you’re seeing, you know, more and more of also, and advances in batteries. And I think it’s important that we–at the same time that we are pushing clean energy technology development, we also, you know, push the technologies into the marketplace. And, you know, fortunately, we have been. More than half the states and, you know, most of the countries in Europe have renewable energy standards that require utilities and others to use more and more clean energy over time. So, you know, I think we’ve started this process on a small scale.
The problem is global warming is such a massive, you know, problem, as Ken said, that we are going to have to accelerate what we do here at home. And then we’re going to have to, you know, bring some pressure on other countries, because, frankly, other countries are going to suffer as much or more than we are from climate change. You know, we’re clearly going to suffer from climate change, but we’re a rich country. You know, there are a lot of countries out there that aren’t as rich and don’t have the kind of money to deal with sea level rise and super storms that we do.
DESVARIEUX: So I want to bring up–a 2005 federal legislation exempted fracking from Safe Drinking Water and Clean Air acts. It’s called the Halliburton loophole. You both are probably very familiar with it. If we were to close this loophole, Joe, would you be more comfortable with fracking, this idea that it could be a bridge energy source?
ROMM: Well, I think there are two separate issues.
You bring up that the fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. We have no idea what some companies are putting into the ground. And, you know, you have to understand, when you frack a well, you are putting millions of gallons of water down into this well with a whole bevy of chemicals, and in some cases, you know, probably pretty toxic chemicals. And that water ultimately comes back up and is collected and then is typically reinjected deep underground, because, you know, most places can’t purify it, can’t, you know, send it through a wastewater system. Now, those toxic chemicals are a concern to the local community.
That, I think, is separate from the leakage issue, which is that the whole process of methane production, delivery, transport is fairly leaky, and if you wanted to get a handle on the leakage, you would actually have to have some pretty strong regulations, I think. There’s no question that the best companies probably don’t, you know, cause as much harm as the worst companies. In fact, I’m sure they don’t. So the question is: how do you get all the companies to do what the best companies do? And, again, I think you would need some sort of government standard or regulations to do that.
DESVARIEUX: Ken, do you agree with that?
CARLSON: I agree that there are several issues here. And the safe, clean energy source–we’ve spent a few minutes talking about climate change, and I think that’s the biggest issue. The other risks–and this is more what we actually are studying here and working with industry partially on are things like air pollution and potential water contamination. So there’s CO2 and methane for climate change, but there’s also NOX, there is the VOCs, the volatile volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone levels. And so that’s of more, you’d say, immediate concern. You know, those are short-term health issues.
And so if you look at it that way, I don’t think the regulation that you mentioned really has much to do with that now. And the reason I say that is because I think the states have moved past that. That was nine years ago. And the states really regulate what happens with water, what happens with air emissions, water management. It’s–the federal government maybe can’t take a role in that right now. And speaking from Colorado, which I’m very familiar with, we have some pretty strong regulations surrounding that.
DESVARIEUX: Joe, I want to get your comments, ’cause you obviously disagree.
ROMM: Well, you know, I think that what can be done in an ideal world is often pretty far from what happens in the real world. And, you know, it’s very clear that there are some very bad actors out there, that there are some–you know, that maybe 80 percent of the emissions probably come from 20 percent of the wells. The trick is finding, you know, regulating, and supervising those wells. And I think that is the challenge. You know, from my perspective, we were warned, you know, starting 25 years ago, that we had to start to get off of fossil fuels. And natural gas might have been a bridge fuel back then, but we have dawdled for so long, we don’t really have the time to spend tens of billions of dollars on new natural gas infrastructure, and then we’re going to have to dump all that infrastructure and ten or 20 years anyway for renewable power. It would make a lot more sense to just seriously vbegin the transition towards wind, solar, energy efficiency, and other forms of clean energy.
DESVARIEUX: Ken, I’ll let you have the final word. I mean, it’s a really good point. Should we just at this point stop investing in fracking and just concentrate on renewable energy?
CARLSON: Well, it’s like what I said is: how do we do that? How do we–we don’t really tell companies and investment firms , etc., where to invest and where to put their money. So I don’t know whether that’s really a practical solution. We need to maybe influence decisions that are made in the market. You know, that’s a potential. But I’m not sure how we say we’re just not going to do this anymore.
Let me go back to one point you were making about the clean and safe extraction with fracking. So we’ve–like I said at the beginning, we’ve tried to say this is happening around here, how can we make it more accountable, how can we make it better. And so one of the research projects we started two years ago with the state, with state funding, actually, was to put a real-time monitoring of air and water in place to get at who the bad actors are, if there are bad actors, and put a little more transparency into the industry, and maybe more information to the public so the public can make decisions on which direction we should go. I believe we could do more of that nationally. Is monitoring–let’s see–let’s hold people accountable. If there truly contaminating the air, contaminating the water, then let’s monitor, let’s find that out, let’s hold people accountable, let’s provide transparency.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Kent Karlsson, as well as Joe , Thank you both for joining me.
ROMM: Thanks for having me.
CARLSON: Thank you.
Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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