Like many environmentalists, I was dismayed when the Senate failed to pass a cap-and-trade bill two years ago. It looked like we would never get our act together to reduce greenhouse gases. Get ready to have beachfront property in Vermont, I thought.
But it turns out our greenhouse emissions dropped anyway, from 6 million metric tons to 5.2 million — the lowest level since 1992. We even beat the European Union, where the Green Party actually has members. So how did we do it? One big reason, ironically, is a Texas oil man named T . Boone Pickens, who perfected the art of squeezing natural gas out of shale rock by blasting huge quantities of water at it.
People already knew that America sits on huge reservoirs of natural gas embedded in shale. But nobody had a cost-effective way to get it out. As Pickens mastered his technique — known as “fracking” — natural gas became unbelievably cheap. Everyone started switching away from sulfur-burping coal plants to gas.
People started swooning about gas: It comes from economically-depressed areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania, not the deserts of Iraq. And it releases about half the greenhouse gases that coal does. Finding that out was like discovering that ice cream cures cancer. Gas was going to save America, economically and environmentally. It was going to be “one of the five great story lines of the 21st century,” Representative Edward Markey said.
It seemed too good to be true — until people started insisting that it was, and blamed fracking for everything from bad water to sick cows.
It started with the documentary “Gasland,” made by a filmmaker who suggests, among other things, that fracking causes breast cancer. (According to epidemiologists, it doesn’t.) Then Matt Damon made his new movie “Promised Land,” about how fracking turns lush farmland brown. (While there are credible cases of tainted water, fracking seems to coexist safely with farming in much of America.) And then there is the new television show “Dallas,” where the good cousin Chris Ross pushes for alternative energy, while JR’s evil son focuses on fracking. (In reality, both alternative energy and gas are part of the climate change solution.) Another movie — this time in support of fracking — is rumored to be on the way.
But maybe we need less Hollywood and more science. For all the millions of Google hits that “fracking” brings up, remarkably little research has been done on what its risks actually are and whether they can be mitigated.
“There is a huge discrepancy between what we talk about and what we know,” said Avner Vengosh, a Duke professor who co-wrote one of the few peer-reviewed papers on fracking’s impact on water quality.
Fractivists may have gone overboard in their claims. But the gas industry also suffers from an aversion to science. After Vengosh discovered evidence that private wells near fracking sites were contaminated with methane gas, he says he was denied access to shale sites in Pennsylvania.
“The fracking industry is in total denial,” he said.
The truth is there are plenty of reasons to fret about fracking: Cheap, easy gas could slow our progress toward more affordable solar power and wind. And methane gas can leak into the atmosphere, curbing the greenhouse gas benefit. Scariest of all, geologists believe that fracking could produce minor earthquakes.
Even so, Vengosh doesn’t believe in a ban. That would only make people stick to coal, which is far worse.
“It’s important to see the big picture,” he said. The United States is pioneering a new technology that will set an example for the rest of the world including China and India, where shale gas could play a huge role in reducing emissions. America’s regulations for fracking should set the standard.
There are ways to make fracking safer, like ensuring that it happens far from private wells, that water is disposed of properly, and that methane isn’t allowed to leak out.
But neither the gas industry nor the fractivists seem interested. The industry insists that the practice is already safe, while fractivists insist that it never will be.
The website NoFracking.com even suggests that frackers are deliberately poisoning America’s water supply, so that T . Boone Pickens will make more money selling clean water.
If that sounds like a plot out of Hollywood, stay tuned. It just might be.
Farah Stockman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.