Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fracking export boom possible

We discussed hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" at some length in this semester's Environmental Sustainability sections. Students were generally not in favor, or at least highly questioning, especially those from the states of Pennsylvania and New York. I think this is an appropriate approach.

But fracking isn't all bad. It's only partly bad. How bad it is depends on the alternatives. It's better, for instance, than coal.

The technique, which is causing a natural gas boom in the US and increasing jobs in both the energy and manufacturing industries -- cheap energy luring manufacturing jobs back from the east for the first time in a generation -- has probably helped reduce current carbon emissions, but fugitive methane natural gas operations may be partly or wholly cancelling out that benefit.

Geopolitically, fracking is weakening the Russian "mafia state." The price of gas on world markets is still high, but markets are beginning to realize that there is an alternative in the form of US and European gas, and so are adjusting, reducing the power of the Kremlin.

Now there's a proposal to export US gas to Europe.

Again, there are mixed costs and benefits: US gas prices will go up, reducing the growth effects in manufacturing industry. European prices will go down, benefiting European consumers. The Russians will be additionally weakened, disallowing the nasty games they've played in recent winters where they held European countries hostage to gas supplies. Climate emissions from coal in Europe will go down to begin, but may increase again later if growth continues. Fugitive emissions and environmental damage in the US will go up.

The heart of a policy analysis education, and the heart of critical thinking in the liberal arts, is training to frame decisions in circumstances where there isn't one good answer.

Ideally, I'd like to see us move very much more aggressively on renewable energy and energy efficiency. And I think it will be cheaper in the long run to do so. Fossil fuel is a dead-end.

And I want to see Russia and China democratize. I think this is essential to the future of the planet, and without it there's no hope for a long-term climate solution. The Russian and the Chinese kleptocracies will continue to use the dirtiest of fuels for as long as they can, to line their own pockets, unless their own people stop them by getting rid of them or unless the west can gain the upper hand diplomatically and economically and keep it.

In the event that I can't get all I want, I may be able to get some of what I want.

If we control fugitive emissions and local environmental damage, fracking may give the west the political power we need to force a long term settlement over both climate and global democracy.

Of course, a massive immediate investment on renewable energy and energy efficiency would have much the same effect.

I'd prefer this solution over fracking.

But I never get all of what I want.

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