Thursday, July 19, 2012

natural gas, energy, "fracking", & climate change

Two webblurbs last week caught my eye.  In the first one from Boulder Weekly entitled "Fracking out of a recession", the author makes the case that the natural gas boom has the chance of bringing a number of U.S. states out of recession.  "Fracking" is a term that's stirred up a lot of controversy over the past year, but I think much of that is overblown.  Hydraulic fracturing of rocks deep underground through pressurized wells is a process that's been used for a number of decades to release more oil & gas from rocks than is otherwise possible.  Hydraulic fracturing also occurs naturally when fluid pressure in small cracks in rocks increases high enough to overcome the stresses holding rocks together.  To be sure there are some ways that this process could cause environmental problems.  The fluids used in the process are no longer as benign as they used to be, and care must be made that they aren't dumped or spilled at the surface & cause contamination.  That is a problem that can be solved by having 1) political will to make good laws against polluting, i.e., requiring corporations to take care of their messes; and 2) having an oversight agency that has the resources necessary to enforce the law.  There is also the concern that the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing could contaminate ground water sources.  I don't want to go into this in detail, but I think this is not likely to be a major issue in most places.  It certainly could be in some areas, but overall the layers of rock that are intended to be fractured to release resources are not usually close-by to fresh-water aquifers.  But again, that's an issue that could be solved by appropriate laws and appropriate enforcement of those laws.  In short, I'm definitely not "against fracking".  I'm against irresponsible fracking.  I generally agree with the main points of the BW article, but the article I'm referring to makes too little of the need for responsibility and proper oversight in this business.  I think the tone & attitude toward the environmental problems is too dismissive.  Pollution problems need to be taken seriously, but all too often in our society the positions are polarizing: fracking is the solution to our economic problems, or fracking is the worst attack on the environment.  The truth is somewhere in between, & always more nuanced.

I know a lot of people would still oppose an increase in extraction of natural gas because of the problem of climate change.  I would argue that the increase in the use of natural gas as a fuel source for electricity is a much better option for the environment than coal.  Coal produces a lot more CO2 per unit energy released, and it also released all sorts of heavy metal toxins like mercury.  Natural gas is, in my opinion, a great transition fuel to move away from coal and toward fuels that are more environmentally friendly.  I would love it for us as a society to move more toward renewable fuels, and I think we will, but that process of societal change is going to take a long time.  Moving away from coal and toward natural gas will be better for the environment.

I'm something of a pragmatist when it comes to these issues, and I also enjoyed a recent post at the DotEarth blog about how a ski resort has entered into an agreement with a coal mine of all things in order to reduce carbon output.  This is another example of a step in the right direction.