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Joe Nocera’s Puzzling Column on Fracking

Joe Nocera has a bizarre column today, a riposte to anti-fracking activists, really, that can be summed up in three words: “Get over it.”

Fracking isn’t going away.

To put it another way, the technique of hydraulic fracturing, used to extract natural gas from once-impossible-to-get-at reservoirs like the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath New York and Pennsylvania, has more than proved its value. At this point, shale gas, as it’s called, makes up more than 30 percent of the country’s natural gas supply, up from 2 percent in 2001 — a figure that is sure to keep rising. Fracking’s enemies can stamp their feet all they want, but that gas is too important to leave it in the ground.

You could make a tidy sum betting on the notion that fracking isn’t going away. But is this really Nocera’s, or anyone else’s, role in the public debate? To tell people they’re just going to have to get used to contaminated water because selling natural gas makes a lot of money? This world-weariness may sound reasoned and savvy, but for people who can light their tap water on fire, it doesn’t exactly satisfy them. And if Nocera thinks he can induce people who have no usable water source to stop “stamping their feet,” that they should bow to the “importance” of shale gas (which I guess is more important than the lives and livelihoods of the residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, Pavillion, Wyoming, etc.), he’s, er, wrong.

Nocera goes on to praise the Environmental Defense Fund, a typical enviro group, for acknowledging the economic benefits of having more natural gas. I’m sure there would be economic benefits to a Running Man-style forced manhunt, but that doesn’t actually make that practice responsible or desirable.

Then Nocera moves to the ways in which fracking could be dealt with “responsibly.” He highlights one statistic that actually alarms far more than it soothes:

Let’s take one example: the problem of methane leaks. Every natural gas well leaks methane — methane is natural gas, after all — and while the natural gas that winds up being burned as fuel is, indeed, relatively clean, methane that escapes into the air is potent. Though it eventually disintegrates, for several decades methane can add significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

Question No. 1: How much methane leaks into the air as a result of fracking? Incredibly, nobody knows. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the leak rate at a little more than 2 percent, but a recent study suggested it might be twice that. And a controversial Cornell University study last year said it was closer to 6 percent. Clearly, it is critical to know the answer, which is why the Environmental Defenses Fund is currently participating in a study that is expected to provide one.

Question No. 2: How big a difference will it make to the environment if industry can minimize methane leaks? A lot. To illustrate the point, Steven Hamburg, the group’s chief scientist, showed me a model he had devised. It allowed me to see the effect on greenhouse gas emissions as methane leaks were reduced. Suppose, for instance, the current leak rate turns out to be 4 percent. Suppose we then reduce it in half. That would mean an immediate reduction in overall U.S. greenhouse gases by — are you sitting down for this? — 9 percent. If the leaks are reduced to 1 percent, the decrease in greenhouse gases jumps to 14 percent. (That number eventually gets smaller as the potency of the methane wears off.)

This is a clever bit of sleight of hand that tries to ignore the converse, that natural gas may have the equivalent environmental disadvantages of coal. If the leak rate is as high as 4% – and we don’t have good data on this – then Nocera is actually saying, by his own statistics, that fracking increases US greenhouse gases by as high as 22%. This has actually been backed up by additional scientific studies.

Yes, if that were arrested, it would make natural gas production a bit more palatable, though this doesn’t even cover water contamination. But as it stands now, fracking pollution through methane leaks accounts for a large chunk of total greenhouse gas emissions. Isn’t that a PROBLEM? The usual suspects say that methane leaks can be managed through new technologies. We’re talking about the same companies who cut off water shipments to Dimock, who have never admitted any contamination from fracking, who use lobbyists to fight tooth and nail against every regulation, and who even today don’t have to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, thanks to a loophole in the 2005 energy bill. Do we really believe that these companies will take methane leaks seriously? As for the need for federal regulation, that would entrust fracking oversight to the same people who arrested Josh Fox for filming a fracking hearing.

Nocera does acknowledge that natural gas companies won’t drill responsibly on their own, and that environmental protest has made a difference. I guess that’s why he wants to shut those protests down.

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David Dayen

David Dayen