Wouldnt it be regrettable if public challenges to hydrofracking, led by environmental activists, resulted in a world beset by rising levels of greenhouse gases and other pollutants originating from coal plants?
That possibility is worth contemplating, given the prohibition against fracking in New York state and efforts to prevent its use in producing natural gas elsewhere in the United States and abroad.
Yet fracking has produced an abundance of cheap natural gas in the United States, which utilities are using to displace coal in the production of electricity. Compared to natural gas, coal produces more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxides and twice as much carbon dioxide, according to the Government Accountability Office, the regulatory arm of Congress. Coal plants account for about 40 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
The stepped-up use of cleaner burning natural gas is a primary reason why greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are at their lowest level in 20 years. To be sure, other factors are also responsible for the decline in emissions, including improvements in energy efficiency and the economic slump. But the switch from coal to natural gas is central. Coals share of the U.S. electricity market has fallen from 52 percent a few years ago to less than 40 percent today, while the use of gas in this market has jumped to a 30 percent share and is expected to surpass coal by the end of this decade.
Shale-gas is also providing huge economic benefits to states, communities and individual landowners around the country. In fact, the United States has become the worlds lowest-cost producer of natural gas.
But the environmental and economic benefits from shale-gas production will continue only if policymakers in Washington and Albany acknowledge that shale-gas will remain a critically important energy source for the foreseeable future.
New York state is a perfect place for responsible state and local environmental officials, scientists, engineers, energy companies and the public to learn from one another to overcome misconceptions about fracking and reach a constructive solution. The environmental impact from fracking on air and water quality is negligible. And energy companies are determined to keep it that way. At the same time, liquefied natural gas could be used as a substitute for oil as a transportation fuel and some of it could be exported to Europe and Asia, where natural gas is valued up to five times as much as in the United States.
We would be unwise to turn our back on natural gas from an unconventional source such as shale. It is clean, it is safe, and there is a tremendous domestic supply of gas which is not dependent on foreign, potentially unreliable suppliers. Had it not been for the growth in shale-gas production, the decline in greenhouse gas emissions would not have been as successful. Someday history may show that the seeds of international cooperation in the battle against global warming, sowed by this technological breakthrough in gas drilling, led us to a safer world.
The writer is a retired petroleum exploration geologist with over 20 years exploration experience. He resides in Sackets Harbor.