Franz Litz – There is an Environmental Upside to Safe Fracking

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The debate about fracking—that controversial method of extracting natural gas from deep beneath the earth’s surface—is a lot like the debate around safe sex.  Those who suggest no fracking is the only safe fracking are like those who suggest abstinence is the only safe sex.  They may be right in the strictest sense, but that doesn’t make them realistic.

What a difference a few years make.  Before fracking, the environmental community had a long-running love affair with natural gas. Natural gas is the “clean” fossil fuel.  For sure, natural gas is not as clean or sustainable as wind power or solar energy, but for decades, those of us concerned about the impacts of burning fossil fuels embraced natural gas as least among fossil fuel evils.

Burning natural gas doesn’t cause acid rain or poison the brains of children like coal burning does. Unlike coal and diesel fuel, natural gas does not give off large amounts of dangerous fine soot particles that lodge deep within our lungs causing serious respiratory problems. Natural gas has about half the carbon content as coal, making it half as bad as coal when it comes to global warming pollution.

So natural gas isn’t so bad.  But does that make fracking safe?  No. We must work to put the right regulations in place to ensure fracking is safe. We also  need adequate regulatory oversight to ensure the gas industry is complying with those regulations. Governor Cuomo and his Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens have halted fracking in New York until these safeguards are in place.  This is precisely the kind of reasonable approach to fracking that we need.

New exploration and extraction technologies such as fracking have increased the supply of natural gas and lowered its cost.  The result will be cleaner air in the Northeast as Midwestern coal plants shut down, replaced by plants burning cleaner natural gas. Northeastern states have waited decades for this kind of change.

EPA and the states are finally making the nation’s aging fleet of coal power plants clean up their acts.  As new regulations to control highly toxic mercury emissions as well as smog- and acid-rain-causing pollution come into effect, the oldest, least-efficient coal plants will shut down. Inexpensive natural gas will be the go-to fuel to replace coal.

From a global warming perspective, this new lower-cost supply of natural gas just might give us a jump on a lower carbon economy at a time when politicians are largely ignoring climate change as an issue.  If we replace one-third of the existing coal-burning power generation with natural gas—a realistic goal—we’d reduce U.S. global warming pollution by at least 5%. If we could replace one-third of the transportation fleet currently burning oil-derived fuels with natural gas vehicles, we could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by another 5%.   

It’s time we recognized the environmental upside to all of this fracking.  As long as we put safeguards in place to protect our water supply and air quality, fracking, and the low-cost natural gas it will produce, will improve our environment by cleaning up the air we breathe. And at a time when our national leaders have decided to do nothing to address the climate change problem, low-cost, low-carbon natural gas may be just what we need.

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

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