Environmentalists should embrace hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as a means to mitigate climate change and ease air pollution, a University of California, Berkeley, physicist contends in a new report.
Richard Muller and his daughter Elizabeth, co-founder of Berkeley Earth -- a nonprofit focused on climate science -- in a paper issued last week said that "environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake."
"Shale gas is a wonderful gift that has arrived just in time," the Mullers said. "It can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce a deadly pollution known as PM2.5 that is currently killing over three million people each year, primarily in the developing world."
PM 2.5 refers to particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or smaller, "microscopic dust particles created directly from burning fuel," the paper said. "These particulates are so tiny that they penetrate deep into human lungs where they are absorbed into the blood and lead to cardiorespiratory disease."
The Mullers wrote their paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, a London-based think tank co-founded by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The United Kingdom is debating how to proceed with rules on fracking, which prompted Richard Muller's recent visit to that country. He testified before the U.K. Parliament's House of Lords.
The report is the latest to raise the issue of fracking for natural gas and the tension it creates among environmental groups. Because it emits half as much greenhouse gases as coal when burned, natural gas is seen by some as a better climate option.
The debate around natural gas as more climate friendly isn't new, but hydraulic fracturing has changed the outlook by expanding the abundance of the fuel, Muller and others said.
As countries including China consider fracking, environmentalists should lend support, Muller said. China by late this year had twice the carbon dioxide emissions of the U.S., the paper said, and is on track to produce more CO2 per person than the U.S. by 2023.
China is "moving ahead with great vigor" on fracking for natural gas, Muller said. "They would love to move much faster, and I think we should help them." India also would benefit from fracking for natural gas and would have lower carbon emissions and cleaner air, he said.
Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, said PM 2.5 pollution is a serious issue.
"Air pollution is really bad for people's health," Schrag said. "It causes asthma in children. There's no question that that point is correct."
But while that pollution is affecting developing nations, the Mullers' argument ignores that fracking largely is a U.S. phenomenon, Schrag said.
"There's not likely to be much [shale gas] development in those countries over the next 10 years. There may be a little in China. There may be a little in India. This is mostly a U.S. issue for now."
For green groups, the natural gas issue isn't simple. There are multiple concerns about natural gas, said Mark Brownstein, associate vice president and chief counsel of the U.S. Climate and Energy Program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Natural gas is "often promoted as a miracle fuel," Brownstein said. "There certainly can be environmental advantages over other fossil fuels, but the stuff's not pixie dust.
"There are some significant challenges associated with producing and distributing the fuel, and we need to pay attention to those challenges if we're going to realize any of the potential environmental benefits."
Methane leakage key
Muller's paper comes as EDF is studying natural gas and the issue of methane leakage. Knowing how much methane is vented into the atmosphere from wells, pipelines and other parts of the natural gas production process is crucial because "over the first 20 years after it is released, it is 84 to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), the main contributor to man-made climate change," EDF said, citing projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
EDF has teamed with the University of Texas, Austin, to study methane escapes in a number of arenas.
"We need to get the leak rate across the natural gas system from well to burner tip below 1 percent," Brownstein said. "Otherwise, we can't be assured that substituting natural gas for coal really has the benefit to the climate that we'd like to see and that we think we can achieve."
Steve Everley, spokesman for Energy in Depth, an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said "most studies are concluding" that methane leak rates "are below a threshold that maintains the environmental benefit" of natural gas.
U.S. EPA has put the natural gas industry leak rate at 1.5 percent. Other studies have disputed that number as too low. Brownstein said the rates along many parts of the fuel's life cycle aren't yet known.
Muller said the gravity of methane leaks is misunderstood.
If the rate is EPA's 1.5 percent or even double that amount, he said, "neither of those is enough fugitive methane to negate the enormous advantage of natural gas over coal for greenhouse warming."
People conclude that because methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, a 2 percent leak rate is "very bad," Muller said, adding, "That's a mistake in calculation."
Because methane is short-lived, it doesn't stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon, Muller said.
"The experts are in agreement that the level of methane leakage that would be required to offset the advantage of gas over coal would have to be 16 to 18 percent," Muller said.
Others said excess methane even over the short term could create enough warming to set off a chain reaction. A huge spike in temperature could cause thawing of frozen tundra that would release more methane, said Dan Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.
"Then you sort of get a cycle going that would be very bad," Weiss said. "In that regard, it's a very dangerous pollutant."
Natural gas hurting renewables
The Mullers' 16-page report argues that the issues some environmental groups are concerned with -- methane leakage from natural gas, potential water use and water pollution from fracking, and that fracking can contribute to earthquakes -- "are either largely false or can be addressed by appropriate regulation."
"Those are all deep concerns," Richard Muller said. "We would not have written this paper if we did not feel that those are things that can be readily addressed. There's a great deal of misinformation on all of these subjects."
Brownstein, however, said that just because the problems can be controlled by regulation doesn't mean there's the political will to do so.
Moreover, said Schrag with the Harvard Center for the Environment, there are local issues at play with fracking that bump up against the global issue of climate change.
"So for Muller to say if you care about the environment you should love shale gas, well, maybe," Schrag said. "But what if you really care about protecting your water supply? Maybe you don't love shale gas. It's complicated."
Schrag said he agreed with Muller that "the local effects can be mitigated." But he cautioned that "it's not obvious and easy. There are trade-offs here."
As well, there are other complications for environmentalists when considering fracking for natural gas, Schrag said.
Displacement of coal by natural gas has reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, "and that's a good thing for the climate," Schrag said, but if it's short term and "coal makes a big recovery 10 years from now when the cost of natural gas goes back up, frankly it won't be that big of a deal."
"What the climate system really cares about is cumulative emissions over a century," Schrag said.
And at the same time that natural gas has hurt coal, "the cheap natural gas that we've had has also completely decimated the investment in renewables," he said. "Cheap natural gas makes it very difficult for alternative technologies to prosper.
"Thus far natural gas has been bad for climate change," he added, but "not because of emissions. Emissions is the wrong metric. What matters is that the investment in innovation in alternative energy technologies, non-fossil-energy technology has dropped because of cheap natural gas."
Natural gas and enviro alliance?
Schrag in a piece published last year in Dædalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, suggested environmental groups and the natural gas industry should unite in support of a comprehensive national climate policy.
"The key is not just to displace some portion of current coal use in the United States, but rather to weaken severely the coal industry's political power by virtually eliminating conventional coal use in the United States," Schrag's paper said.
Natural gas and the amount of the fuel available through fracking have played a big role politically in recent years, Schrag said. There is now a viable alternative to coal.
EPA's proposal to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants "never would have happened without shale gas," Schrag said. "Shale gas allowed that politically, because there is a replacement fuel, there is a plausible replacement that we already have infrastructure for. There is an alternative, it isn't a total joke."
Weiss disagreed with that assessment. In 2008, he said, both Republican presidential nominee John McCain and then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama had plans to deal with climate change that included carbon cap and trade. That was just at the very beginning of the shale gas revolution.
In 2009, climate legislation from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) -- now a senator -- "passed the House with more bipartisan support than every Obama initiative" since then, Weiss said.
"Shale gas has done little to change the bottom-line politics around reducing carbon pollutions," Weiss said.