Fracking and Facts

For years, professional activist groups have tried to ban hydraulic fracturing by claiming this six-decade-old technology is “inherently unsafe [and] can’t be made safer through government oversight or regulations.” It’s a loser of an argument, because even the Obama administration – which has been trying to raise taxes and impose new regulations on the oil and gas industry since the day it arrived in office – acknowledges the fundamental safety of hydraulic fracturing and the benefits of the domestic energy production made possible by hydraulic fracturing.

For example, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell – a former board member of the National Parks Conservation Association and petroleum engineer – said earlier this year “fracking has been done safely for decades” and that the campaign to ban fracking “ignores the reality that it has been done for decades … and will be done for decades to come.” The recent news out of the states has been equally bad for the activists. While mainstream environmental groups are a major constituency within the Democratic Party, the “ban fracking” activists were so extreme they were defeated by huge margins in deep-blue states like California and Illinois.

In fact, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who has battled the oil and gas industry throughout his four decades in politics, specifically rejected the “ideological bandwagons” of the activists, and so did the vast majority of lawmakers in the state legislature. This prompted the Washington Post to observe that “the writing is on the wall” for the activists who want to ban hydraulic fracturing.

Rather than face the facts on hydraulic fracturing’s long record of safe use, groups like Food & Water Watch decided to change the subject. So these days, you’re just as likely to hear the “ban fracking” activists portray themselves as the only true champions of renewable energy sources. According to Food & Water Watch: “Any position short of a ban on fracking is hurting the development of renewable energy…”

Let’s weigh that claim against some recent comments by General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, once described by Salon and Rolling Stone as a “climate warrior,” and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D), who championed and signed a law that requires the state to generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Immelt and Ritter were participants in a panel discussion at Colorado State University’s 2013 Natural Gas Symposium in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Immelt said GE “walked the talk” by investing roughly $30 billion in renewables and clean energy over the past decade. In fact, GE has sold more than 18,000 wind turbines globally, and generated $30 billion in revenue over roughly the same timeframe. According to Immelt, having natural gas as a backup power source when the wind doesn’t blow makes it easier to sell wind turbines, not harder:

“We look at it as a big driver of sustainability … Gas working with wind or other renewables is also allowing for renewables to be more economic.”

Immelt’s comments echo those of the Solar Energy Industries Association, which says “gas and renewables complement each other very nicely.” Along the same lines, a Colorado Energy Office report notes power plants that run on natural gas “can be brought on and offline and dispatched faster” than other sources, making more room on the grid for “intermittent sources such as wind and solar … which will further improve air quality, improve human health and reduce environmental impacts.” Or, as the clean energy advocates at the Breakthrough Institute have said, “gas is really good for renewables.”

Just take a look at the last decade of data from Colorado’s power grid. According to statistics kept by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, generation of gas-fired electricity in Colorado grew by 17 percent. Over the same period, renewable generation experienced a more than 20-fold increase, rocketing renewable electricity’s market share in Colorado from 0.4 percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2012. Based on that experience, you can hardly argue that growing production and use of natural gas is bad for renewables.

Immelt’s comments echo those of the Solar Energy Industries Association, which says “gas and renewables complement each other very nicely.” Along the same lines, a Colorado Energy Office report notes power plants that run on natural gas “can be brought on and offline and dispatched faster” than other sources, making more room on the grid for “intermittent sources such as wind and solar … which will further improve air quality, improve human health and reduce environmental impacts.” Or, as the clean energy advocates at the Breakthrough Institute have said, “gas is really good for renewables.”

Just take a look at the last decade of data from Colorado’s power grid. According to statistics kept by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, generation of gas-fired electricity in Colorado grew by 17 percent. Over the same period, renewable generation experienced a more than 20-fold increase, rocketing renewable electricity’s market share in Colorado from 0.4 percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2012. Based on that experience, you can hardly argue that growing production and use of natural gas is bad for renewables.

EID chart

What made the discussion at CSU all the more interesting is the citizens of Fort Collins are voting Nov. 5 on a local ballot initiative – sponsored by Food & Water Watch and other national groups – to ban hydraulic fracturing. The ban is opposed by the Fort Collins City Council, and even the editorial board of the local newspaper, which says the college town is being “used as a pawn in what could be a potentially costly environmental position statement just for the sake of a handful of wells on our city’s perimeter.”

Here’s what Immelt had to say about the “ban fracking” movement:

“Good regulators know how to protect society, but also spur innovation. That’s true in energy, that’s true in health care, it’s true in every industry that competes in the United States…

To just say no to things isn’t good regulation. It’s a blunt instrument that stimulates nothing … That’s the other thing you’ve got to kind of factor into your thinking, is that there’s also bad regulation, and you don’t want to fall in that trap either.”

Ritter, who leads CSU’s Center for the New Energy Economy, responded by explaining his center’s involvement in California’s debate over hydraulic fracturing, and why the “ban fracking” position was rejected:

“We worked with Gov. Brown’s staff about hydraulic fracturing and about the science around it and the policy angles around it. But there were people who were in the opposition camp, on both sides. ‘We don’t want any regulation on hydraulic fracturing’ on one side – and it was a small group of people – and a group of environmentalists said ‘we want a ban.’ The people who got what they wanted, actually, were the people who worked in the middle on a set of regulations.”

Also participating in the panel discussion was Chuck Davidson, the CEO of Noble Energy, one of Colorado’s largest oil and natural gas producers, who explained what the “ban fracking” campaign really means in practice:

“That’s saying ‘no’ to more than hydraulic fracturing. In America, that’s really saying ‘no’ to oil and gas development, because 90 percent of the wells in America today are hydraulically fractured … Almost all of them in Colorado are hydraulically fractured. So you are saying ‘no’ to energy development. You’re saying ‘no’ to natural gas.”

Based on what we know from the people who actually build wind farms and solar arrays – the people who make renewable energy happen, instead of just talking about it – ending natural gas development in America will not help renewables continue to grow. In fact, John Hanger, the former head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection and a Democrat who is currently running for governor, has noted that banning hydraulic fracturing would undermine renewable energy and increase carbon emissions by reviving demand for electricity from other fossil fuels.

Last year, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions reached an 18-year low. In fact, our nation is cutting emissions four times faster than what was proposed in the cap-and-trade legislation that failed to pass Congress a few years ago (despite the support of GE’s Immelt and a broad spectrum of environmental groups). According to the EIA, the biggest factor was the availability and affordability of natural gas. That simply would not have been possible without using hydraulic fracturing in deep shale formations to dramatically boost domestic natural gas production.

Environmentalists who care about environmental outcomes have welcomed this news, and even though they remain critics of the oil and gas industry, they don’t want to ban the technology that helped to cut carbon emissions faster than the failed cap-and-trade bill ever could have aspired to. Groups like Food & Water Watch, however, seem only interested in running campaigns that could actually come at the expense of environmental outcomes. In short, they are the kind of environmentalists who are so extreme they attack other environmentalists for not being extreme enough.

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