The Coal vs. Fracking Canard

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The Coal vs. Fracking Canard

It’s not coal versus fracking that we should be debating; it’s fossil fuels versus renewables.

(Image: Food &  Water Watch)

Following a recent report from the Department of Energy that 66 percent of natural gas produced in the United States comes from fracked wells and news that March was the third straight “hottest month ever,” Mother Jones has published a piece – for a second time this year – that argues that fracking for natural gas is a valuable, even necessary, tool in the fight against climate change because it displaces coal. Both pieces were written by ClimateDesk Associate Producer Tim McDonnell. I addressed the first one here and while the recent piece is more nuanced, it still engages in a debate centered in the wrong fight. It’s not coal versus fracking that we should be debating; it’s fossil fuels versus renewables. Any other debate plays into the oil and gas industry’s hands and helps confuse the public about the seriousness of the scientifically-established need to transition away from fossil fuels completely.

We face an urgent need a transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. Already the effects of climate change are being seen across the globe. We face even more climate chaos if we don’t fight a clean energy revolution.

Even if we had zero emissions from coal and oil starting today, about 97 percent of all known natural gas must be kept in the ground to avoid 1.5°C of warming.

McDonnell acknowledges that the arguments for increasing reliance on fracked natural gas as a component in fighting climate changes has a host of problems. A major one is the amount of methane that leaks during the life-cycle of producing fracked gas. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, trapping 87 times as much heat in a 20-year time frame and 34 times more in a 100-year time frame. While carbon dioxide lasts longer in the atmosphere than does methane, increased methane emissions are clearly contributing to the increase in global temperatures. Robert Howarth of Cornell University has argued that because of climate tipping points that can be reached at low levels of global warming, relying on fracked natural gas “does not suffice as an approach to take on global warming.”

A tipping point is a threshold in warming beyond which a certain climate change effect is expected to be abrupt and potentially irreversible.

A 2015 study of 37 different tipping points found that, according to various climate models, 18 could be triggered at temperature rises below 2°C. Warming beyond these tipping points is expected to bring “abrupt shifts in sea ice and ocean circulation patterns as well as abrupt shifts in vegetation and the terrestrial cryosphere [including polar ice caps, glaciers, tundra, etc.].” These tipping points could make sea level rise far worse than expected, close to a meter within the century, and impose huge costs on coastal communities.

Even below 1.5°C in warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted has already had effects on our climate including violent storms, droughts, floods, acidifying and rapidly warming oceans, and altered growing seasons.

And increasingly the evidence shows we are approaching 1.5°C in warming. Ed Hawkins, a scientist with the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom created this graphic that shows the rising global temperature since 1850.

Given the urgency of transitioning to clean, renewable energy, locking ourselves into a coal versus fracked gas mentality is misguided. And it dooms us to the chaotic climate change that is looming just past 1.5°C.

Debating coal versus natural gas really just plays into the “clean” natural gas bridge fuel canard promoted by the fossil fuel cartel.

For anyone who thinks that that transition to renewables is inevitable, the policy evidence coming out of Washington suggests otherwise. In the past six months Congress has moved two energy bills that expedite exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), create “energy corridors” for pipelines through our National Parks, expand funding for finding new sources of methane, and undermine local communities’ ability to fight fracked gas infrastructure. Should they become law any of these provisions would help lock in the burning of natural gas for decades to come.

Yet, we know that even beyond the contribution methane leaks are making to global warming, we cannot afford to burn the natural gas itself. In other words, even if there were no leaks, burning natural gas will doom us to climate chaos.

The IPCC released an array of different carbon dioxide budgets in 2014: simple projections for how much carbon dioxide could be emitted into the atmosphere over time for a given chance of staying under a given level of warming. In one scenario the IPCC stated that to have a better than 66 percent chance of avoiding a 1.5°C rise in temperature, we could only emit an additional 400 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide, beginning in 2011. This was a cautious, consensus, scientific result.

Since the beginning of 2011, through 2015, about 180 Gt of the carbon dioxide budget of 400 Gt has already been dumped into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. We have only about only 220 Gt left — equivalent to about five more years under current emission trends — if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding 1.5°C of warming.

So, what about burning “clean” fracked natural gas? Eight hundred Gt of carbon dioxide would be emitted just from burning all of the “conventional” natural gas in the world. That’s the gas that could be extracted without fracking. Burning all of the estimated global resources of “unconventional” natural gas — that is, burning all global shale gas, tight gas and coalbed methane from fracking — would add another 5,600 Gt of carbon dioxide.

That is a potential 6,400 Gt of carbon dioxide from natural gas alone, or about 29 times the IPCC budget for having a decent chance of stabilizing the climate below 1.5°C of warming!

We need a Clean Energy Revolution that builds the political will to make the transition.

Even if we had zero emissions from coal and oil starting today, about 97 percent of all known natural gas must be kept in the ground.

Debating coal versus natural gas really just plays into the “clean” natural gas bridge fuel canard promoted by the fossil fuel cartel. Instead of engaging in this distraction, anyone who cares about averting the truly horrific consequences of climate chaos caused by global warming needs to advocate policies that will stop the burning of fossil fuels and rapidly transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

We need a Clean Energy Revolution that builds the political will to make the transition. Our political officials need to pass energy legislation that accelerates that transition, not legislation that anchors us in the past as the sea levels rise and the forests burn around us. That transition will require policies over the next couple of decades that:

  • Builds out wind and solar power on a scale that rivals recent U.S. drilling and fracking, assuring that clean energy is available to all Americans;
  • Invests heavily in expanded and better public mass transit;
  • Commits investments for energy efficiency and conservation across residential and industrial sectors; and
  • Ends the era of extracting and burning fossil fuels.

Mitch Jones

Mitch Jones is the Director of the Common Resources Program at Food & Water Watch.

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