Golden Rules for Fracking

Well, this is embarrassing.  Kevin Drum, one of the best bloggers out there, posted a few days ago on the issue of whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment.  Kevin covers the ground that we have here before, namely:

Yes, natural gas is better than coal or other fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, BUT:

1.  If natural gas development winds up crowding out renewables instead of coal, then the emissions gains might even become emissions losses;

2.  The cheaper electricity from cheaper gas might just lead to higher consumption and wipe out emissions gains;

3.  Methane from the fracking process itself could cause great climate change, because methane is a far more potent (though far shorter-lasting) greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; and

4. The fracking process can also affect the safety of local groundwater supplies.

In other words: it depends.  It depends upon how safe, careful, and well-regulated is the particular fracking at issue.  I usually conclude such a discussion with a plea for more work on the proper regulatory substance and structure to minimize the risks and ensure that we have net reduction in emissions.

Well, Kevin also reveals that the International Energy Agency has made what appears to be a serious effort at getting this process started: Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas, published on May 29th.  I feel a little sheepish that I didn’t see it before.  Kevin highlights two of these golden rules:

(1) Eliminate leaks completely from the natural gas production process, and (2) use carbon sequestration to substantially reduce carbon emissions from gas-fired electrical plants.

It is not clear to me that either of these things can actually be done to the extent needed, and it is very far from clear that regulatory authorities will have the political support or organizational capacity to ensure that it is done.  But that’s why I have to read the entire (150-page) report!  Presumably, IEA will have some recommendations and thoughts along these lines.  If not, the report might produce, er, more heat than light.  But it is worth investigating.  And if IEA strikes out on these key governance issues, then that’s all the more useful work that scholars can do.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Golden Rules for Fracking”

  1. I think there are several issues as serious or more serious than those Jonathan cited.

    The produced water that comes out of the wells, a mix of the nasty chemical-laden water used to frack the rock and even greater amounts of deep ground water that gets pumped out with the natural gas. The deep water is typically laden with salts and metals, sometimes radioactive. Where this stuff is dumped and not treated–and I think treatment is expensive and difficult–it will definitely pollute ground or surface water.

    Lots and lots of land disturbance. Develop a gas field and a national forest will look more like and industrial park.

    Conventional air pollution from all the diesel powered trucks, pumps and drilling rigs.

  2. I think there are several issues as serious or more serious than those Jonathan cited.

    The produced water that comes out of the wells, a mix of the nasty chemical-laden water used to frack the rock and even greater amounts of deep ground water that gets pumped out with the natural gas. The deep water is typically laden with salts and metals, sometimes radioactive. Where this stuff is dumped and not treated–and I think treatment is expensive and difficult–it will definitely pollute ground or surface water.

    Lots and lots of land disturbance. Develop a gas field and a national forest will look more like and industrial park.

    Conventional air pollution from all the diesel powered trucks, pumps and drilling rigs.

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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