February 28, 2012

Two Cents: To Frack or Not to Frack

Print More

The debate over hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, has recently exploded as a local and national issue. The first studies investigating the environmental effects of fracking have just been published and two Cornell studies have drawn contradictory conclusions about the practice. The Sun invited the authors of these studies, as well as other professors studying these issues, to discuss their opinions and findings.Two Cents: To Frack or Not To Frack

The debate over hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, has recently exploded as a local and national issue. The first studies investigating the environmental effects of fracking have just been published and two Cornell studies have drawn contradictory conclusions about the practice. The papers, and an even more recent response, can be found here: http://www.acsf.cornell.edu/2011Howarth-Methane, http://www.springerlink.com/content/x001g12t2332462p/fulltext.pdf, http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Howarthetal2012_Final.pdf.

The Sun invited the authors of these studies, as well as other professors studying these issues, to discuss their opinions and findings.

What is hydraulic fracturing?

“Hydraulic fracturing is the use of water and chemical additives under high pressure to increase the production of a gas or oil well. The technology has been used for over 50 years to increase production of conventional natural gas wells, but in the last 10 years or so fracturing has been applied — with far larger volumes of water — to get at tightly held gas in shales and tight sands, gas that was not producible by traditional technologies.”

—   Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology

Is fracking for natural gas better for the environment than mining coal or drilling for oil?  Why?

“With regard to global warming, the evidence clearly shows that yes, shale gas is worse, when considered over the critical next two to three decades. Recent studies by the United Nations and by NASA Goddard Space Institute show that it is critical to reduce methane pollution globally, beginning immediately, if we are to avoid warming the Earth to 1.5 degrees by 2030 and to two degrees by 2050 or so.  At these temperatures, we have a high probability of tipping points in the global climate system (such as melting of permafrost, and release of trapped methane from the arctic) which could lead to runaway global warming.

Natural gas is mostly methane, and even small amounts leaked to the atmosphere matter, because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas … We estimated that over the lifetime of a well, between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent of the gas leaks to the atmosphere as methane. This is substantially more than for conventional natural gas, and so when society continues to replace conventional gas with shale gas, methane emissions increase. The natural gas industry already contributes almost 40 percent of the methane pollution in the atmosphere in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We simply cannot afford to let this increase, if we care about global warming.”

— Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology

“Natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal or oil. It is composed of methane, which is simply one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. Burning methane produces just carbon dioxide and water — the carbon dioxide from the carbon atom and the water from the hydrogen atoms. So natural gas really is already part of the ‘hydrogen economy’ that we seek.

I think that natural gas is a much better fuel in terms of the climate, provided it is burned efficiently to make some form of useable energy. Of course, since pure methane has negative effects on the climate, care must be taken to avoid wherever possible venting unburned natural gas into the atmosphere.”

— Prof. Andrew Hunter, chemical and biomolecular engineering

“Natural gas, including that recovered by fracking, is much better for the environment that coal or oil because it produces 25-percent less carbon dioxide than oil and 55-percent less carbon dioxide than coal when it is burned; it releases none to the other harmful products these other fuels can emit (such as mercury and lead from coal); it can generate electricity with almost twice the efficiency as coal, and it burns a great deal cleaner than oil when used in transportation. If you calculate how much gas could reduce global warming in the spectrum of going from a business as usual increase in oil, gas and coal to substituting zero carbon energy sources, the answer is about 40 percent of the way, provided the methane leakage is about two percent or production as it appears to be for both conventional and unconventional gas production.”

— Prof. Lawrence Cathles, earth and atmospheric sciences

“One can argue about which of these three fuel sources are the worst for the environment, but the bottom line is that they are all polluting and nonrenewable. If only a fraction of the money wasted on military action and tax incentives in support of fossil fuel companies could have been spent on energy conservation and the development of renewable energy, the conversation could be much different. Countries, such as Germany, are far ahead of us now both in terms of public policy and technology. We need to catch up.”

— Prof. Robert Oswald, molecular medicine

How does fracking for natural gas compare economically to acquiring and using other sorts of fuel sources?

“Many energy economists view shale gas as an economic bubble.  Industry invested heavily in this technology when the gas prices spiked, and they hope that the price will again rise. In the meanwhile, major shale-gas companies such as Chesapeake Gas have lost substantial amounts of money on shale gas development over the past two years. They have stayed solvent only by selling land leased for gas, and by borrowing substantial amounts of capital from banks and foreign governments.”

— Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology

“Because of the large amounts of natural gas tied up in shales that we now know we can recover, the price of natural gas has fallen by a factor of two and is presently very low compared to oil and coal, and it is likely to remain so. Because of this there will be a natural tendency to substitute natural gas for these fuels, which will be a very good thing environmentally and economically for the U.S.”

— Prof. Lawrence Cathles, earth and atmospheric sciences

Who benefits from fracking for natural gas?  Is anyone hurt?

“Some businesses (gas operators, gas field service industries, motels, restaurants, etc.) will benefit, some (tourism, wineries, organic food production, bed and breakfasts, etc.) will lose. Some individuals/families will economically benefit (sign on bonuses, royalties), some will lose (property values, increased rents). There will be injuries, illnesses and deaths associated with shale gas development: It is a spatially and temporally intense industrial activity performed amid daily life of an entire regional population. But there are deaths, illnesses and accidents associated with all forms of energy.”

— Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, civil and environmental engineering

“Local land owners benefit from royalties, citizens in the U.S. benefit from lower energy prices and good jobs, local, state and federal governments benefit from more tax revenues. An area like ours will benefit because farmers with added income will be less likely to sell their farms, and our rural way of life will be sustained. There will be impacts of gas development such as about four percent greater road use and a good deal more road degradation. There is added risk of spills of produced brines containing fracking additives and this means that those who allow drilling on their property could be hurt. The risk can be restricted to the immediate site and can be managed and remedied. The risks to the general community are much less than trucking gasoline into our area and many other activities we already accept and manage.”

— Prof. Lawrence Cathles, earth and atmospheric sciences

“The public health impacts are likely to be significant and have not yet been fully quantified. Public health can be affected directly through environmental contamination or indirectly through effects on food safety.”

— Prof. Robert Oswald, molecular medicine

Given that fracking involves competing interests, where do you believe the public can turn for an impartial evaluation? Is such an evaluation even possible?

“There are substantial differences of opinion about many complex issues around the Marcellus shale, from how much gas exists in the shale to how much is released into the atmosphere during extraction and transport, to impacts on the local environment and on human health. Though the public often wishes for clarity and certainty from science, disagreement is a healthy and fundamental aspect of science: Scientists challenge, review and test each others’ work, and over time track down each others’ errors. If there is sufficient relevant data and analysis, evidence-based consensus begins to develop within the scientific community. Effective peer-review process and constant search for answers in the long run can lend impartiality to the scientific community, even while individual scientists would not be expected to be impartial about their own ideas.

Complete objectivity is philosophically impossible, but useful approximations can be made in part through communications relying upon available evidence … By reading multiple sources, a reader may be able to factor out biases or errors that could be present in individual pieces.”

— Prof. Robert Ross, earth and atmospheric sciences

[The following is a list of Dr. Ross’ suggested references:] Cornell Cooperative Extension “Natural Gas Resource Center” naturalgas.cce.cornell.edu Paleontological Research Institution “Marcellus: The Science Beneath the Surface”: museumoftheearth.org/marcellusshale WSKG “Marcellus Shale Resource Page”: wskg.org/info/marcellus-shale-resource-page McGraw, Seamus, 2011, The End of County. Random House: NY 256 pp. Wilbur, Tom 2012 Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. Cornell Univerity Press: Ithaca, NY

Original Author: Bob Hackett