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Do We Need Renewable Energy to End Fracking?

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If human beings had perfect foresight, we'd have invested our time and money into renewable energy resources instead of drilling for oil and fracking for gas to meet our energy needs. The required scientific principles for each of these technologies have always existed — we just didn't know enough about the implications to properly sort our priorities.

We don't have that kind of foresight, unfortunately, which means it's time to answer some overdue questions. One of the most important is whether or not fracking is still necessary in a world where renewable energies are growing more affordable and accessible by the day.

The short answer is: "No, probably not." The longer answer is, "It's complicated."

Why the Backlash to Fracking? 

Fracking is the colloquial term for "hydraulic fracking." This is the process whereby energy companies inject large volumes of water and chemicals into shale deposits to free the oil and natural gas trapped inside. It's a straightforward concept. So why all the controversy?

Many scientific studies describe a variety of environmental threats posed by fracking. Here are some of the findings made public by the U.S. Government's Accountability Office:

  • Fracking is thought to pose a risk to air quality due to the increased use of diesel pumps and the large amount of truck traffic required to transport shale oil.
  • Shale oil sites pose a risk to water quality due to a variety of factors. These include groundwater contamination from fracking chemicals, erosion, and underground migration of gases due to ground disturbances.
  • Fracking activities pose a not-yet-fully-understood threat to human health. Physicians regularly observe cases of headaches, rashes, nausea, dizziness and other symptoms in individuals near fracking sites. Some physicians call these symptoms "the tip of the iceberg."

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 15.3 million Americans lived within one mile of a fracking site in 2014. Despite these many red flags, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts natural gas production to grow by a further 44 percent between 2011 and 2044.

Does Fracking Deliver Any Benefits? Or Has Its Time Come and Gone? 

In 2013, Dr. Daniel Yergin testified before Congress on the subject of "America's Energy Security and Innovation." Here are the highlights of his lengthy testimony:

  • The "oil and gas revolution" — that is, the pivot from oil to natural gas — supported 1.7 million jobs in 2013 and could rise to 3 million by 2020.
  • In 2012, this "revolution" helped government at the federal and state levels add $62 billion in revenue. The industry anticipates a total rise in revenue of $113 billion by 2020.
  • The "oil and gas revolution" improves the "competitive position" of the U.S. in a rapidly globalizing economy.

Readers can decide for themselves whether these are sound defenses of a practice which is so tightly wrapped in controversy and so closely associated with environmental and health damage in numerous scientific studies.

Nevertheless, Dr. Yergin is not alone in lobbying for greater public and private investment in natural gas and fracking. In 2008, T. Boone Pickens — chairman of British Petroleum's Capital Management hedge fund — introduced his own "Pickens Plan," which described shale oil, natural gas and hydraulic fracturing as an integral part of America's pivot away from its dependence on oil. Here are some takeaways:

  • "Natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction to imported oil. It is a bridge fuel to slash our dependence while buying us time to develop new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil fuels."
  • "[Natural gas] will help us to keep more of the $350 to $450 billion we spend on imported oil every year at home, where it can power our economy."
  • "By investing in alternative energies while utilizing natural gas for transportation and energy generation, America can decrease its dependence on OPEC oil."

Pickens, too, builds his case on the promise of revenues and job creation. But he's even more explicit in his desire to see natural gas — and by extension fracking — emerge as a major investment vehicle. He's almost certainly correct that moving from oil production to natural gas to renewable energy would be a less jarring transition than pivoting more directly from oil to renewables.

But does it matter?

That's the question before us now: does the severity of those growing pains justify investing in a fuel source and an extraction method that's so rife with controversy and well-observed harm? Before we answer, we must consider the lateness of the hour where climate change is concerned. The phrase "borrowed time" scarcely describes the situation in which we find ourselves. Scientists say we have barely more than a decade to reverse current trends. And that makes the "intermediate step" of fracking and shale oil investment feel like an ill-timed and unnecessary detour.

By 2027, high-end solar panels will be able to convert more than one-quarter of the solar energy they receive into usable energy. But even today's solar technology, if deployed sensibly, could power the entirety of the United States. Some estimates say a 100 percent solar-powered America would require a solar farm measuring 100 miles by 100 miles, with a fleet of storage batteries measuring one mile by one mile.

What would it require? Sensible investment priorities and job-retraining for many of the individuals currently employed in the oil and gas industries.

What does enlarging our natural gas and fracking industry require? It requires investment, too. But we'll shed jobs a little more slowly.

Those who do lose their jobs in this transition will require retraining programs, likely with the help of a green jobs initiative at the federal level. This concept has already emerged as a campaign issue for 2020 and beyond in the form of the Green New Deal. Many voices say this is an eminently realistic solution to climate change and the outsized impact oil and gas have on our (and our planet's) health. It's not a threat to the economy — it's a threat to the current economic status quo.

Renewables Now or Later?​​​​​​​

So let's return to our original question: Do we need renewable energy to end fracking?

The answer is "yes." We need it for the health of the planet and to lay to rest the manifold unanswered questions about fracking's influence on human health. But the better question might be:

Do we need natural gas and fracking to make our way to a purely renewable future?

The answer is "not really." But we need the political and economic will to weather the transition — and a bold plan to keep the Americans with jobs on the line employed.

Emily Folk's picture

Thank Emily for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 16, 2019

Emily, "renewables-now-or-later" is a false dichotomy. Renewables will never end fracking; in fact, they're mutually dependent. Over the years, gas companies have found erecting a few solar panels or wind turbines is an ideal way to capture the imaginations of naive renewables advocates who want, very much, to believe renewables, with batteries, with efficiency, with demand-response, with [fill in crutch here] will one day prove capable of keeping gas in the ground.

I've been hearing that promise for 50+ years, and it's no more true today than it was half a century ago.

What have gas companies always considered the real threat, the source of clean energy worth devoting the lion's share of their opposition marketing resources?

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