Climate change is the single greatest environmental challenge humankind has ever faced. Unabated, global warming pollution threatens human health, entire ecosystems, and large land areas inhabited by hundreds of millions of people. Averting the worst impacts of climate change means we must reduce our reliance on high-carbon fuels like coal and oil and over time move to a near zero-carbon economy by mid-century.
It won’t be easy. And it will take focus. We must become more energy efficient and begin investing more aggressively in renewable energy now. On the way to a cleaner, greener economy, we will have to continue to make hard choices about how we produce electricity, propel our vehicles, and heat our homes. Until we reach that sustainable energy future, saying “no” to one fuel means saying yes to some combination of the other available fuels.
Opponents of fracking seem to be missing this bigger picture—it is not that their environmental and health concerns have no merit, but that even valid concerns must be evaluated in the context of our larger climate change and energy realities.
Hydraulic fracturing uses large quantities of water mixed with chemicals. Cases of groundwater contamination have been tied to both fracking and conventional natural gas wells drilled in an atmosphere of lax or non-existent regulation. As a native of New York’s Adirondacks, I do not relish the thought of industrial drilling rigs dotting the landscape of the Catskill Mountains region or the rolling hills of New York’s southern tier.
On the other hand, environmentalists in the Northeast have worked tirelessly for decades to lessen the impact of coal plants upwind. Those coal plants spew toxic mercury, acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide, and smog-causing nitrogen oxides that cause serious health problems. And then there are the impacts of coal mining itself—impacts that are well documented and severe.
What do the dangers of coal have to do with the dangers of natural gas? Increased natural gas supplies have made natural gas the least-cost fuel for electricity generation in the United States. By most credible estimates, natural gas power plants emit half the global warming pollution of coal plants per unit of power produced, and natural gas presents almost none of the other air pollution problems of coal.
If we replace one-third of the existing coal-burning power generation with natural gas—a realistic goal—we’d reduce U.S. global warming pollution by at least 5%. If we could replace one-third of the transportation fleet currently burning oil-derived fuels with natural gas vehicles, we could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by another 5%.
Because the environmental risks associated with fracking are real, we must work to put the right regulations in place to ensure fracking is as safe as possible. We also need adequate regulatory oversight to ensure the gas industry is complying with those regulations. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens have halted fracking in New York until these safeguards are in place. This is precisely the kind of reasonable approach to fracking that we need.
Why am I a fan of cheap natural gas? Abundant natural gas will do what most politicians have been unwilling to do—significantly reduce global warming pollution by displacing dirty coal plants. And while the energy markets work their magic, we need to continue to drive energy efficiency and renewable energy. Ultimately, though, tackling climate change and creating a sustainable energy future will require politicians in Washington that understand the need for action. If we are to make them understand, we need to focus more on climate change, and less on fracking.
Want to know more about fracking? Join members of the Pace Community on April 9 for a multi-campus discussion on the controversies surrounding hydrofracking in New York. Please RSVP online at www.pace.edu/paaes/events.