Is Fracking Good for the Environment?

Mother Jones 7 September 2012.

(Editor’s note: This is an interesting take on the effects of cheaper natural gas and demand elasticity – lower the cost of gas and electricity and people will use more, largely offsetting the 30%-50% GHG reductions over current coal usage emissions. My solution –  just slap on a big carbon tax and stabilise the energy prices! Lots of money for our government to do good works for the poor!)

Is increased production of natural gas from shale deposits good for the environment? At first glance, yes: natural gas releases less CO2 into the atmosphere than coal, so replacing coal-fired electrical plants with gas-fired plants is a win for global warming. And since fracking makes natural gas cheaper, it helps stimulate a switch from coal to gas.

But wait: It turns out you also have to account for leakage. The problem is that natural gas is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right, and when you extract natural gas from shale formations, some of it inevitably leaks out. That’s decidedly badfor global warming. But David McCabe, an atmospheric scientist at the Clean Air Task Force, reports that the news is fairly good on this front: “From the best of the collective work, we believe that burning natural gas for electricity produces about 30-50% less greenhouse gas than burning coal, even accounting for the emissions of methane (and carbon dioxide) from producing and transporting the natural gas.”

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop there, and it gets a lot grimmer as you dig deeper. The problem is simple: If you make something cheaper, people will use more of it. In the case of natural gas, this is fine as long as people are using more of it as a substitute for coal. But that accounts for only a small fraction of natural gas usage: