Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Science, well sort of…the final definitive answer on fracking

Wait, what was the question?  Oh right… some months ago I undertook a journey seeking to answer the question, is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?  I started this quest for two to get some clarity in my own mind on the issue, but more importantly, I hoped the exercise would serve as a model to show how we each come to our own conclusions on what to believe on sciency issues.  If you are just catching up, you can follow the journey here ('The experiment begins''Fracking open my brain', 'Midterm').  My governing theory behind all this, which frankly I’m coming to doubt more and more as time passes, is that by illuminating how we come to our beliefs, we all might have a better shot at doing so accurately…honestly…scientifically…and most important to me for some reason, non-ideologically.
Ok, here goes…the definitive answer to the question posed is… yes. Everyone cool with that?  Shockingly, I’m guessing not.  So now for the one caveat and then my rationale.
The caveat for the answer is simply that it is mine.  It’s the answer I came to after my own exploration.  It is not absolute, it is no doubt based in some significant part on my own biases as I sought to parse the fine points that lie between the debates, and it is subject to revision as time goes by.  I had originally thought I would seek out two experts on either side of the debate to help me decide, but after digging in deeper, I realized I could just as easily read their work, and frankly, once things got technical, I would have to defer to my own judgment in any case.  So the answer is yes….here’s how I came to my conclusion.

I will stipulate that there are indeed risks posed by fracking…but I did not set out to see if it was safe, rather, to find out if the benefits outweigh the risks.  In my judgment they do.  The risks come in two categories, localized and global.  The localized risks include groundwater contamination, earthquakes and other general environmental disturbances that come with the drilling of wells.  In my review, while there are anecdotal examples for all of the above, and always will be, I could not find any data supporting systemic impacts for any of these risks.  Some argue that the absence of evidence of risk is not evidence that there is no risk, and I get that.  But so far, if we follow the data available, this is where we are.  My bet is that more studies will not materially alter this conclusion….Biased?

The global risks are twofold…the release of methane during the drilling and fracking process, and the broad question of what does natural gas replace.  Several years ago claims were made that the release of extra methane during fracking would overwhelm the benefits of using natural gas in place of coal.  This idea gained a lot of traction and its authors were widely cited.  The problem is, there is now a pretty clear consensus that they were just plain wrong. The methane release debate is insanely complex, as all these things are, but I was persuaded by the preponderance of evidence at this point that methane leaks are not a material problem.

The policy and market driven question of what does natural gas replace is for me the biggest one.  This is where the critics of fracking make the most compelling points.  If the increase in cheap locally sourced natural gas does not replace higher carbon energy sources as it is deployed, the argument goes, we’re screwed.  So don’t spend time on it, and move straight to zero carbon alternatives.  In a perfect world I vote for this too…but, well, you know…so living in this world we need to look at what is possible now.  We have to set policies that will still push for the rapid deployment of all zero carbon energy sources.  We have to price carbon so that the market works more efficiently to encourage lower or no carbon alternatives.  We need to move away from coal, globally and fast.  Natural gas, which is essentially methane by the way, has about half the CO2 of coal, and if it is locally sourced and used, has an added benefit of a lower end to end carbon footprint.   It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better and has contributed in a marked reduction of US CO2 output.  Is it enough? No.  Is it on balance worth continuing to develop more natural gas by fracking? Yes.

A friend and colleague used the analogy that if you’re driving towards a cliff at 60 mph, you need to do more than slow to 50… Agreed.  But to get to a stop, you have to slow to 50 first along the way.  In my judgment fracking can have that effect….so, what do you believe?

PS…I purposely did not include any citations to my sources to avoid clutter, and because I am lazy.  However, if you have doubts about my conclusions, I’ll point you to how I got there in the comments.