An Inconvenient Irony

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, remains the target of many environmental groups and some governments who seek to prohibit or significantly curtail the practice. Fracking, however, has provided an abundance of cheap natural gas, which has played a major role in the dramatic decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted in the United States. The decrease in CO2 and the role fracking has played in it has created an interesting, and perhaps inconvenient, irony.

The combustion of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and natural gas) in the energy, transportation, and industrial sectors creates the vast majority of greenhouse gases (GHG). Coal combustion creates much more CO2 than the combustion of natural gas. CO2 is the most abundant of GHG and remains in the atmosphere much longer than other GHG, such as methane. Although methane and other GHG have a higher global warming potential, the large amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere has been a major focus of the climate change (formerly known as ‘global warming’) debate. Recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations and the Kyoto Protocol are examples of national and international efforts spurred by environmental groups seeking massive decreases in CO2 emissions.
For its part, though, the United States has decreased its CO2 emissions. The most recent data establishes that the amount of CO2 emissions in the US has dropped to the lowest they have been in about twenty years. Emissions in the US peaked in 2007 at 6.1 million metric tons, but fell to 5.6 million metric tons in 2011. The average emissions since 2007 has been 5,691 million metric tons per year.

The main cause for the sudden and appreciable decline in CO2 emissions? Cheap and plentiful natural gas. Fracking has become widespread throughout the country, from Texas’ Barnet Shale, to Louisiana’s Haynesville Shale, to South Dakota’s Bakken Shale, and to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Even Gov. Jerry Brown of California has suggested that California should consider fracking to tap into the state’s vast fossil fuel reserves. In turn, the abundance of natural gas has driven costs down, causing many power companies to burn much more of it, thus reducing the amount of CO2 emitted. Although the EPA has issued stringent emissions guidelines for coal-fired power plants seeking to curb CO2 emissions, they have not yet been fully implemented. Instead, the market, through cheap natural gas, has begun a trend that may accomplish what costly EPA regulations have not yet achieved.

However, fracking, the cause of the decrease in natural gas prices and the underlying cause of the recent decrease in CO2 emissions, remains under fire from the very same entities that support mandatory decreases in CO2 emissions. For example, EPA issued a highly controversial draft report regarding shallow groundwater contamination in the Pavillion Field in Wyoming. Even though EPA noted in the report that the fracking at issue in Pavillion was atypical of current fracking practices, many environmental groups have seized on the report as proof of the harm caused by fracking. Further, the federal government itself is moving forward with fracking regulations. The Bureau of Land Management has issued a proposed rule to regulate fracking on federal lands. EPA already requires ‘green completions’ under Clean Air Act regulations. It plans to issue ‘guidance’ for fracking when diesel fuels are used under the underground injection control program. States continue to pass legislation and enact regulations designed to development information about fracking fluids and/or ensure safe practices are used in fracking. Some want to prohibit it entirely. In New York, for example, horizontal drilling for shale gas has effectively been halted until a comprehensive environmental impact review is complete.

In short, fracking has created a market climate that has resulted in a substantial and welcome reductions in CO2 emissions. However, instead of acknowledging the role fracking has played in this achievement and seeking to make it as safe as possible so that more clean-burning natural gas may be produced, many groups and some governments seek to hinder and/or eliminate fracking. The irony that fracking, a practice reviled by environmental groups, has helped decrease CO2 emissions, an outcome long sought by those same groups, seems lost due to their animus to all forms of fossil fuels, even to the use of the one that burns the cleanest.

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