To frack or not to frack: That’s not the question

The latest IPCC report

The latest draft edition of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report includes some rather stark language:

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

Among the potential sources of havoc are rising sea levels, more frequent extreme temperatures, flooding, drought, harm to marine life and potentially violent conflicts arising from the changing agricultural and meteorological environment.

Skeptics of the scientific consensus have made great hay over the fact that global warming appears to have slowed over the past 15 years or so. But new studies indicate that this slowdown appears to be driven by unusually powerful winds over the Pacific, or by North-Atlantic convection, that have buried much of the heat in the water. Current analysis indicates that while the current partial slowdown may continue for a while, accelerated warming most likely will be nonstop for the remainder of the century.

Clearly the time has passed for dismissals and excuses. The worldwide society must take decisive action, and soon, as expensive and difficult as such actions may be. Delays may have already cost the world society US$8 trillion.


Conservation is arguably the single most effective way to reduce our carbon footprint. Conservation measures help in multiple ways, by lowering the amount of carbon emitted during power generation, by saving energy normally lost in transmission, and by saving energy otherwise wasted as heat (which must then be cooled with A/C). Most of the changes are relatively painless — installing better water catchment on highways, controlling power waste in server farms, and using smart meters to control peak power demands.

One of the present authors, after seeing his electrical bill soar to over $400 per month, declared war on his family’s energy consumption. Among the steps he took are:

  • Replacing two computers with energy-efficient laptops, which saved over $100 per month.
  • Replacing the swimming pool filter pump with a new highly efficient, multi-speed unit, which saved another $75 per month.
  • Converting to 100% LED lighting throughout the house, replacing kitchen appliances (notably the refrigerator) as part of a kitchen remodel, and using power strips for audio/video gear.
  • Reducing A/C in summer months by opening all doors and windows in the early morning to cool the house, and then closing them up for the rest of the day.

As a result of these changes, his electric power consumption dropped by more than a factor of three, and, to his great delight, his average monthly bill dropped by more than a factor of five.

Solar and wind

One of the few bright spots in the energy supply picture is the dramatic drop in the prices for solar photovoltaic panels. In the U.S., as of 2012, over 200,000 systems had been installed. For systems installed in 2012, the median price was $5.30/watt for residential and small commercial systems (smaller than 10 kW), and $2.50/watt to $4.00/watt for large utility-scale systems. For residential systems installed in Germany, Italy and Australia in 2012, prices were roughly 40% lower than in the U.S. The current Australian government, for obtuse ideological reasons, is trying to dismantle support for renewable energy.

The other of the present authors has installed a dozen solar photovoltaic panels on his roof. These panels generate, on average, 150 kWh per month (more in summer; less in winter). This power is sold directly to the grid, typically reducing his quarterly utility bill by AUS$400. Both authors have solar heating for their swimming pools.

But it is also clear that solar cannot be the total answer, since at present there is no viable industrial-scale technology to store solar photovoltaic energy once it is generated, to cover nighttime or cloudy days. Schemes such as reversing flow in water reservoirs have been tried, but so far have limited potential.

Large-scale lithium ion battery systems are an exciting prospect, but even at optimistic prices projected for 2020, a home battery system capable of storing enough energy to cover, say, 10 consecutive cloudy days (assuming 33 kWh per day usage), would cost approximately $70,000, and yet only last about six years before needing to be replaced. Ouch!

The same limitation applies in most places to a lesser extent to wind energy. While wind energy is already a mainstay in the supply picture, and is projected to grow considerably in the future, it cannot be the sole or primary source of electric power. Some additional mainline source, not dependent on the vagaries of weather, is needed for at least the next 10-20 years.


The Fukushima reactor accident was truly a horrible incident, and we do not wish to detract from the destruction that occurred. Yet no fatalities resulted, and an international panel of experts recently concluded that the lifetime risk of cancer due to radiation exposure for people living in the vicinity is elevated at most by 1%. [A 1% risk is much less than a 1% increase in cancer rates.]

Further, a just-completed followup study of fish, plants, milk, seawater and salt found in various Pacific locations (including Japan) found no lingering traces of radiation from the Fukushima accident.

On the other hand, realistically speaking, it is very unlikely that we will see a major expansion of nuclear power for the foreseeable future. This is sad, since most of the arguments against nuclear power are based on political philosophy rather than science. Perhaps it is time to forgo the precautionary principle, or, failing that, at least apply it equally to coal and nuclear power, and to road and rail infrastructure as well.


Although coal has the distinction as by far the world’s largest source of electric power, it also has the distinction of being the dirtiest, not just in terms of pollutants, but also in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Coal produces significantly more CO2 per unit energy than oil, and twice as much as natural gas. Thus, phasing out coal power should be the highest priority of nations worldwide.

Oil and natural gas

Oil and natural gas are certainly not ideal sources of energy, since they too result in CO2 emissions, but they are literally the only viable energy sources available to fill the gap over the next 10-20 years while green energy technologies are developed and brought into full production. Natural gas in particular is an attractive option, because converting an electric power plant from coal to natural gas is generally not too expensive, yet it cuts CO2 emissions by roughly 50%.


Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is a process by which fluids are pumped into a rock formation at high pressure, creating fractures that release the flow of oil or natural gas. It was first developed back in 1947, but has been widely deployed in the past few years, particularly in the U.S. but also in Canada, Europe, China, Africa and Australia. Some of the relevant data are in a previous article of ours in the Conversation.

The British government initially gave a green light to fracking. But more recently they backtracked, in part from reports of mini-earthquakes (but at 1.5 to 2.3 on the Richter scale, was it good science reporting to call them earthquakes?). In 2011, France became the first nation to outright ban fracking (and this from a nation with 40% nuclear-based power). In 2014, Germany banned fracking until 2021.

Yet wherever fracking has been applied, oil and gas production has soared. The U.S., with a shameful history of dependence on imported oil, is on the verge of being a net energy exporter. Texas oil production has doubled over the past two years, making Texas a larger producer than either Kuwait or Venezuela, and, as of July 2014, total U.S. production exceeds that of Saudia Arabia.  In both the U.S. and Australia, billion-dollar natural gas ports are being retrofitted to export rather than import gas. Fracking has also led to an economic boom in the U.S. heartland.

But what of the risks and environmental costs? Is fracking really worth it? In August 2014, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released a study of fracking in California and concluded:

  • Fracking operations in California comprise only a tiny fraction (much less than 1%) of total statewide water usage.
  • There have been no publicly reported instances of drinking water contamination in California from fracking.
  • Fracking, as currently practiced in California, does not result in a significant increase in hazardous earthquakes.

On the other hand, fracking is not completely without risks. Regulations are certainly in order to limit fracking near urban areas, culinary water wells, wilderness areas and other sensitive locations. Although most of the chemicals used in fracking fluids are not hazardous, some are. Much of the water used in fracking can be recycled, but it must be treated before being used even for agricultural purposes. Along this line, progress has been reported in filtering recycled fracking water, which is now thought to be easier and safer than treating it with chemicals.


The present authors are certainly not unbridled fans of fracking, nor of the oil and gas industry in general. We deplore attempts by the industry and climate change deniers to use the political system, pandering to a scientifically naive public, to fight the expansion of green energy.

But, realistically speaking, we must accept the reality that oil and natural gas will be with us for the foreseeable future (at least for the next 10-20 years), and fracking too will be with us, since at present it is one of the most cost-efficient means to produce oil and gas.

On the plus side, natural gas in particular is a much greener fuel than coal — converting coal-burning electric power plants to use natural gas is the single most effective step, aside from conservation, that can be taken to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions. Also, the recent rise in U.S. oil production, due in part to fracking, has greatly lessened the West’s reliance on oil from the unstable Middle East, and promises to do the same for Europe’s unsavory Russian sources.

When was the last time that world oil prices actually dropped during a major international crisis? That is what is happening now — as of September 2014, oil prices are near a three-year low, despite the horrific unravelling of Syria and Iraq, incipient civil war in Libya, an uncertain ceasefire in Gaza, possible full-scale war in Ukraine, and possible nuclear weapon development in Iran and North Korea.

So in this imperfect world, it seems that the right approach is not to fight fracking, but instead to carefully deploy fracking as part of an aggressive program to develop green energy, while at the same time rigorously examining all aspects of risk inherent in fracking, and taking steps to minimize the environmental footprint of these operations. In short, let’s forget the ideological nonsense and take a pragmatic, science-based approach to fracking. All sides will benefit.

[Added 04 June 2015: A new EPA studies found that while there a few instances of fracking chemicals contaminating drinking water, this damage is very limited and not widespread. Here is a NY Times report, and here is the actual EPA report.

[A version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post.]

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