On Tuesday in Salt Lake City, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a natural-gas drilling project for Utah’s Uinta Basin that will result in more than 3,600 new wells.
For those concerned that fracking — a controversial extraction method that involves pumping a mixture of water and chemicals deep into the ground at high pressure — might contaminate groundwater or increase harmful emissions, Salazar’s announcement might seem like yet another setback for the environmentalist cause. Yet the project includes big concessions to conservation groups, which means that activists who often oppose such projects largely haven’t attacked it. Even if they had, a report out Monday from the Rhodium Group (h/t National Journal) demonstrates why America’s natural gas boom, fracking and all, will probably be a net plus for the environment.
Rhodium’s Trevor Houser notes that greenhouse gas emissions from America’s energy sector in January were down 13 percent compared to 2005, the baseline year the United States uses in its international climate commitments. Sure, Houser admits, the month-to-month data the Energy Information Administration provides are volatile, and other things also made the numbers look good. This winter was unusually warm, depressing electricity demand, for example. But lower demand only accounts for about half the decline. The other half appears to be electric utilities, whose emissions dropped 18 percent, switching away from coal to renewables, nuclear and, yes, natural gas. When burned, natural gas emits about half the CO2 coal does. And, unlike renewables, it is now extremely cheap.
Don’t get too exuberant. The country has not yet reached its 2020 carbon goals — more fuel-switching away from coal, among other things, will be necessary for that. And burning loads of natural gas is not a permanent solution to the climate problem, either. The fuel won’t reach its full potential to cut U.S. emissions until some new fracking rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) kick in, but, even then, it will still produce lots of greenhouse emissions. Rather, natural gas is an inexpensive bridge that seems already to be helping the United States meet its medium-term climate goals, giving us some time as renewables get cheaper.
Instead of writing off these benefits, environmentalists can play a constructive role in auditing natural gas fracking practices, looking out for unforseen consequences and pushing for sensible fracking regulation. In that vein, environmentalists should count new fracking rules from EPA and Interior as victories. Interior’s rules only apply to drilling on federal land, but environmentalists and state regulators can use them as a template for environmental standards on state and private land, too. EPA’s rules, meanwhile, will cut down on the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during the fracking process.
Salazar’s Tuesday announcement in Utah shows that conservationists can encourage safer extraction without closing off access to resources. Anti-natural gas activists should apply the same logic more often.