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Memo to Fracking Apologists: You're Hurting Renewables (and You're Greenwashing, Too)

Here’s a memo to the technocrats, pundits, environmental organizations and foundations that believe corporate collaborations and market-based solutions are the key to solving the critical environmental problems facing us. Why are you so afraid of fighting for what we really want—a future based on renewable energy and energy efficiency?Anti-fracking protest in New York. (Photo: wakeup-world.com)

Any position short of a ban on fracking is hurting the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions in the long term, saddling us with 50 years of infrastructure to continue fracking for gas that will be exported around the world. It’s also helping to pave the way for a new phase of geopolitical dynamics (like we saw at Rio+20) where corporations are jostling to promote the market as the ultimate arbiter for the environment and corporations as the last hope for saving the planet.

Here are some of the arguments that are often used to greenwash fracking at the expense of a truly sustainable future:

Argument #1: Natural gas is a bridge to renewables

Let’s talk first about gas as a bridge fuel. Thanks to shale gas drilling, natural gas is cheap — so cheap that it’s taken investment away from renewables. NextEra Energy Inc. cancelled plans for new wind power projects thanks to cheap gas, according to Greenwire, and the U.S. government has said that the low price of natural gas is one of the threats to the future of wind energy.

Wind power comprised approximately 42 percent of the added electricity capacity in the United States in 2008 and 2009, and this declined to 25 percent in 2010 and 32 percent in 2011. Funding for clean energy overall plummeted in the first quarter of 2012 to just $27 billion — down 28 percent from the previous quarter.

So instead of creating a “bridge” to renewables, what shale gas has done is allow us to substitute one dirty fuel (coal) for another (fracked gas), likely making climate change even more costly and destructive in the coming decades.

Meanwhile, renewables have proven that they can forge ahead when policies are in place to support them. Germany is a renewable energy leader, getting 10 percent of the country’s power from renewables. It reached a record this year when on one day 50 percent of the country’s midday energy needs came from solar energy alone. Texas leads the United States in installed wind capacity and had days in 2012 where wind was responsible for a quarter of the state’s power. Likewise, wind energy delivered 20 percent of the Iowa’s energy from January through April 2011.

But it’s like none of these statistics even exist for those who tout natural gas as a fait accompli. Some, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are supporting the development of fracking, saying that it’s better than coal and that renewables aren’t viable. Not only is the renewables revolution happening, particularly in regions where strong policies support their development, but, as comedian Bill Maher recently noted on his show, stating that wind and solar aren’t viable is like saying 100 years ago that cars aren’t going to replace horses.

Argument #2: Fracking for natural gas is not going away

What about the argument that fracking for natural gas isn’t going away, so we must work to make sure it’s well regulated? That ship has sailed. Thanks to the “Halliburton loophole” that Dick Cheney negotiated with Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from several key pieces of federal environmental legislation. Piecemeal legislation at the state level will not address the devastating environmental problems that are well documented in states from Pennsylvania to Wyoming and Texas. Passing weak legislation that purports to solve the problem will make it more difficult to take action at the federal level. The following proposed regulatory changes Environmental Defense Fund is promoting don’t solve the problems:

  • Disclosing all chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process: Trade-secrets are typically exempted in disclosure bills, but even naming the chemicals will not prevent them from doing damage. Further, many of the harmful contaminants in fracking wastewater are natural contaminants that normally stay deep underground — including heavy metals and radioactive material — which are brought up to the surface during the process.
  • Optimizing rules for well construction and operation: This could reduce failure rates of new wells a few percentage points, and lead most aging wells to fail after 30 years, instead of 20 years. But well casings will fail over time as the concrete degrades and pollutants will leak into the ecosystem. 
  • Minimizing water consumption, protecting groundwater and ensuring proper disposal of wastewater: Fracking takes large amounts of water. “Solutions” to this such as injecting highly flammable propane gel instead of water into wells creates more problems then it solves. Recycling the water that flows out of wells does not address the issue, because depending on the geologic formation, 30 to 70 percent of fracking water stays underground indefinitely. If wastewater is injected deep below ground, the long-term flow of fracking fluids and any displaced brines is beyond human control (not to mention that this practice is associated with small earthquakes). Finally, conventional wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to handle the contaminants in fracking wastewater, and treatment facilities that can handle these contaminants simply turn it into a solid waste disposal problem. These disposal methods all present an unacceptable long-term risk to vital underground sources of drinking water.
  • Improving air pollution controls, including capturing leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas: Leaking methane is a huge problem, and it happens at every stage from drilling and fracking to the end-use of the natural gas. But even if methane emissions were completely eliminated (and they won’t be) the carbon dioxide emissions from using natural gas are significant enough that massive investments to transition from coal to natural gas will do little to address global climate change. The problem isn’t the lack of air pollution controls; the problem is that drilling and fracking brings massive amounts of air pollutants to the surface that must be captured. And, even if efficiently captured, these pollutants will need to be disposed of safely as solid wastes.
  • Reducing the impact on roads, ecosystems and communities: The process of developing fracking sites, drilling and hauling wastewater requires over 1,000 truckloads per well — damaging roads and other infrastructure. Fracking makes rural communities into industrial sites — farms into factories. And once the industry leaves town, communities will be left with the legacy of pollution.  

Argument #3: Natural gas is beneficial to the environment

And for those who still insist in cloaking their positions behind the possible environmental benefits of gas over coal, these arguments don’t account for the fact that scientists now say that shale gas is actually as bad as coal, if not worse, in terms of driving global climate change.

Fracking in context: Profiting off of polluted water

Finally, let’s put fracking in a larger context. There is a whole other global industry surfacing to take advantage of the pollution and water scarcity that fracking will bring. I recently attended the Global Water: Oil and Gas Summit in Dubai, an industry shindig that essentially celebrated fracking’s boon of polluted water as a profit-making opportunity.

In fact, the water industry has declared fracking to be the single largest sector for profiting — a potential multi-billion dollar market. Companies can make money on both ends: by selling water to drillers and then by treating the toxic wastewater. Even the financial services industry wants to get in on the action of trading water — even polluted water. These schemes are promoted as the so-called Green Economy. But really, they are mere greenwash  (just like natural gas).

Grassroots activists all around the country are hungry to fight for the world they want, not the best that can be negotiated by groups that believe close collaboration with corporations is the way to transform policy. The policy dispute over fracking is part of this much larger difference of strategy about over how we can actually save our planet.

It’s time to stop inside deals and join together and create a movement

We are at a tipping point for so many environmental problems, and in order to go up against the most powerful companies in the world, we have to build a movement with the political power to hold elected officials accountable. Working for a ban is inspiring activists to do just that — to become strong enough to turn back the tide of greed and self-interest that is destroying our children’s futures.

So, for those wringing their hands and saying gas is the best we have and it’s not going away, I have a message: Join us and our voices will grow stronger. Together, we’ll force our decision makers to forge policies that support a vision for a true clean energy future, not one that’s bought and sold by the oil and gas industry.

Together, we can demand policies that prioritize renewable energy sources, not provide billions of dollars of tax loopholes to oil companies. We can ask for a ban on fracking, not help pave the way for it.

As long as environmental organizations like Environmental Defense Fund keep giving the oil and gas industry cover to keep doing what they are doing — sucking fossil fuels out of the ground — it will be harder for the grassroots to demand true, clean energy sources. Anything short of that is working within a system that wants to keep fossil fuels as the status quo — one that is happy to pay lip service to renewables and efficiency while essentially snuffing them out.

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