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Fracking and the Climate Debate

Volume 29, No. 3 of the Renewable Resources Journal. As natural gas production has increased over the last decade, so too has the contention surrounding its production. What role should natural gas play in national climate policy? Three popularized beliefs about natural gas as part of the energy mix are that 1) gas is no better than coal when it comes to emissions that contribute to climate change, 2) renewable energy has made such rapid progress that natural gas is unnecessary and a potential threat to the transition away from fossil fuels, and 3) shale gas development causes massive damage to communities and the local environment. Levi addresses each of these concerns in turn, arguing that while shale gas is no panacea, if properly regulated, natural gas can play a critical role in confronting global warming. Gas vs. Coal According to Levi, the argument that gas might be worse for climate change than coal in no longer persuasive. Generating electricity with gas rather than coal cuts carbon dioxide emissions roughly in half. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions plummeted along with natural gas prices – emissions peaked in 2007. Although the financial crisis, renewable energy boom, and energy efficiency played a role in decreasing emissions, the switch from coal to gas has been critical. But what about the effect of methane leaks from natural gas? Levi acknowledges that many opportunities exist for cutting methane emissions, but that the only way to avoid a “tipping point” is to reduce carbon emissions. Methane, though potent, has a short lifetime in the atmosphere. Even if shale gas production results in large methane emissions, natural gas is still better for climate than coal. Cheap gas, however, has not eliminated the need for climate policy. Increasing natural gas supplies displaces coal, along with some gasoline and diesel. However, cheap gas boosts economic growth, increases consumer use, and hurts lower-carbon competitors (such as renewable energy). As such, to capture climate benefits, the shift from coal to natural gas must be driven by well-designed policy rather than solely by market forces. Renewable Energy U.S. wind and solar capacity have more than tripled since 2008. Many environmentalists argue that renewable energies alone can replace coal and cut emissions without the dangers of fracking. Those who oppose natural gas worry that increasing reliance on natural gas will result in an economic “carbon lock-in” as billions are spent on natural gas infrastructure. However, Levi argues, the majority of the cost associated with gas production are gas-producing wells, which require continuous investment. As a result, gas-based infrastructure will be abandoned if cheaper alternatives emerge. An additional argument is that once companies and communities have built businesses and livelihoods around natural gas, they will want to maintain its production. In response, Levi argues that policymakers should craft policies that reward emissions cuts regardless of the technologies that produce them, and adopt policies that drive down the cost of zero-carbon energy to avoid entrenchment in a natural gas regime. Responsible Policy & Regulation As with any other heavy industrial activity, shale gas development poses public and environmental health risks. Therefore, just like other risky activities, it must be properly regulated. Leaky equipment causes air pollution, cracks in wells lead to water pollution, disposal of wastewater generates seismic activity, and fracking fluid contains often unknown chemical compositions. According to Levi, smart policy will have four characteristics:

  • It will be based on lessons learned from the wide range of regulatory efforts, both successes and failures, already underway.
  • It will have comprehensive measurement and aggressive disclosure at its core.
  • It will be grounded in the states but include minimum standards set at the federal level.
  • It will go beyond traditional environmental rules to also make sure that development is properly integrated into communities.
Although the work may be difficult, proper production of shale gas can help transform U.S. emissions to the benefit of climate change mitigation. Volume 29, Number 3 of the Renewable Resources Journal is available for free download.]]>

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