The Truth about Fracking

Let’s get frank about fracking. As I see it, horizontal well drilling and hydraulic fracturing of tight rock formations to release hydrocarbons is the best thing to happen in U.S. energy in 40 years.

I’ve reported on fracking developments in the context of power generation since 2008. I’ve covered energy issues, with a focus on electricity, since the mid-1970s. My most recent article appeared in September, examining the politics of fracking and the rise of a group of activists – calling themselves “fractivists” – who oppose the technology on grounds that range from half-baked to entirely bogus. For many who oppose fracking, their opposition hangs on a deep-seated opposition to anything labeled “fossil fuel,” and a predisposition to believe doomsday predictions, regardless of flimsy evidence.

First, here’s the shorthand case for fracking, drawn from Robert J. Samuelson, the Washington Post’s economics columnist. Writing to support export of U.S. crude oil (forbidden by law in the aftermath of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo), Samuelson notes, “One of the economy’s good-news stories is the oil boom, a derivative of the natural gas boom. When the drilling techniques used to tap vast new reservoirs of natural gas were applied to oil, they yielded similarly astounding results. Since 2008, U.S. oil production has increased from 5 million barrels a day (mbd) to 8.3 mbd in 2014. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says it could go to 9.6 mbd by 2019.”

The Financial Times of London reports that U.S. oil and natural gas liquids’ “output is set to exceed Saudi Arabia’s this month or next for the first time since 1991.” U.S. oil, ethane, and propane production is running about 11.5 mbd, says the FT, citing International Energy Agency figures. Remember the decades-long blather and hand-wringing about “energy independence?” Fugettaboutit.

At the same time, natural gas produced by the new drilling technique has revolutionized electric power, pushing a lot of coal out of the generating mix, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, bringing new flexibility to the dispatch order, lowering consumer costs.

What’s not to like about that? Here’s the fractivists’ case, and why they are wrong.

* Methane leakage. This case posits that leaks from fracked wells put large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. CH4, a simple molecule, is a powerful greenhouse gas, at least over the short run. Experts disagree on how to equate methane and carbon dioxide emissions. Every detailed study to date indicates that gas leakage is a small problem, mostly from existing and older conventional gas wells and infrastructure, not newer wells produced by fracking. There is an economic incentive for the gas industry to reduce leaks. Gas has a real market value (unlike CO2). The EPA has reported that methane emissions from all natural gas facilities have been reduced significantly since 2011.

* Water contamination. This is the oldest, most cited by fractivists, and least credible, complaint about fracking. It stems from the meretricious 2010 documentary film Gasland. The film featured powerful but cheap-shot clips of folks in northeastern Pennsylvania igniting their drinking water, which contains methane. The film attributed the gas in the water to fracking activities in the area (which I know well as my wife is from Scranton). But every independent analysis of the problem of water contamination with methane has found that the phenomenon is from existing, old, and shallow gas wells, which abound in northeastern PA. Fracked strata are so deep it’s unlikely that there is a path for methane to flow anywhere but to the well casing and then to the surface. Surface water might be problem. Ground water? Not.

* Renewables. The green mythology, spouted often in anti-gas rhetoric, is that renewables, primarily wind and solar, can quickly, easily, and cheaply replace gas-fired generation. This belief – faith, not evidence – is mostly delusional. While important, wind and solar remain niche technologies. They experience high growth rates from a very low starting point. Hydro is bigger, but shows little growth (and is loathed by many renewable energy advocates). Someday a magical combination of renewables, electricity storage technologies yet unknown, and either major investment in transmission or an even more improbable development of some sort of more fragmented, distributed grid can make wind and solar reliable players on the scale of fossil fuels or nuclear. That’s nowhere near today.

What is here now is gas. Fracking is the way to get it.