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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Fracking Ethics 319
distributed 8/24/12 - ©2012

For last week's Notes, I pulled together some very basic facts and principles that I hoped would foster reasonably well-informed discussions about controversial new technologies for oil and gas drilling. I described it as "Fracking Ethics 101" -- an entry level course.

One reader replied with what I find to be delightful phrasing: "Thank you for this timely and balanced report. It gave me a lot of information, which makes my decision on whether this is good or bad more difficult."

I also received detailed information back from several very well informed (and sometimes less "balanced") folk that prompt me to write a follow-up, an "upper level course" that delves into more complicated discussions. Perhaps, at this level, more information will help to clarify some of our decisions. (Rest assured that -- as a friend reminded me this morning -- two weeks on this topic is probably enough for the forum of Eco-Justice Notes!)

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I'm going to bounce through five considerations that deserve more detail than what I provided last week. I'll deal with the hardest and longest piece first. And, this will not be on the test, so soak up only what seems relevant to you!

[ #1 ]   I did make a mistake in what I wrote last week. (A politician would say "I misspoke".) I muddled together two different sorts of measurements, and doing so minimized the impact of a very important distinction.

In a section considering natural gas as a "transition fuel" bridging dirty coal and clean renewable energy, I said, "cheap natural gas has had a very positive impact on US greenhouse gas emissions", and backed that up with a report that "US CO2 emissions have dropped to a 20 year low."

The problem is, there is a big difference between CO2 emissions and the larger realm of greenhouse gas emissions. The production and transport of natural gas also involves the release of considerable amounts of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A reduction in CO2 does not necessarily mean that we've improved our overall greenhouse emissions.

I did point to a news report that "The amount of gas leakage and pollution related to fracking have led some experts to conclude that, overall, natural gas may have a larger climate impact than coal." One of my readers gave me a link to the "Howarth paper", the study which says "Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years."

Needless to say, the Howarth paper has been controversial, both in its data and methodology. (Respected journalist Andrew Revkin deals with some of the "whiplash" around that controversy in a January blog post.) As I have delved into this in more detail, I do think that Howarth et al. have raised some essential considerations for ethics and policy.

  1. The process of fracking causes higher levels of methane pollution than other forms of gas drilling, because the natural gas flows back with the fracking water, and during some drilling steps that are unique to fracked wells. In terms of greenhouse gasses, fracking will almost always be more polluting than a conventional well.
  2. The time frame for pollution impacts is important. Howarth emphasizes the 20-year period when methane is most destructive, whereas most other studies have looked at a 100 year window. The next couple of decades are a time when there is a great danger of pushing past climate "tipping points" and the sudden, large push from methane emissions should be a matter of great concern.

[ #2 ]   I made an unsubstantiated comment last week that the record low price for natural gas is blocking the espoused goal that gas can be a "transition fuel" to cleaner technologies. This week's news provides some specific documentation. Black Hills Energy, a regional electric utility, is about to discontinue most of its solar-panel incentive program. A corporate executive said, "The low natural gas price ... has made it a lot less cost-effective to incorporate renewables in our portfolio, especially solar, which is the most expensive."

Clearly, the push for massive levels of natural gas production has a direct impact on the economics of other energy sources. Cheap gas is replacing coal in many electric power plants, and it is blocking the development of dispersed solar energy. I have to wonder -- the gas companies could reap higher profits if their production were held back and prices were kept higher. Is the huge surge in drilling just a stupid scramble for short-term gain, or is the industry making an intentional effort to hold prices down to a level that will demolish their competition?

[ #3 ]   I didn't dwell on a point that seemed obvious. As a I heard from one reader, "Fracking is used in North Dakota where I live to drill for oil. Huge profits are being made." From southern Colorado, I heard from somebody involved in a legal dispute between two oil and gas companies who share ownership of a well site. "I am told this site has perhaps $80 million of natural gas potential" -- and that is at just one site. This sort of big money creates strong incentives and powerful players who can, and will, manipulate information flow and public decisions.

[ #4 ]   One of the big concerns about pollution from fracking has to do with the mix of chemicals that is injected into wells -- chemicals that are part of the air and water pollution as the fracking water is drawn back out of the well. These chemicals, as well as natural gas itself, may cause groundwater pollution in the vicinity of gas wells.

The concern about chemicals has been heightened because the mix of stuff used by drilling companies generally has been claimed as proprietary business secrets, and local communities did not know what chemicals might be contaminating their air and water.

Public outcry about this secrecy has led to greater levels of disclosure. The FracFocus website has information on the chemicals used in over 24,000 wells, voluntarily submitted by the drilling companies. There are still some compounds reported as "trade secrets", but people near fracking operations, and other researchers, can now be much more informed. The database has general information on the chemicals which are most commonly used, and it has specific reports for individual wells.

[ #5 ]   Finally (!!), I heard from a friend with long-standing ties to the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility -- "the pioneer coalition of active shareowners who view the management of their investments as a catalyst to promote justice and sustainability in the world." Pat told me about a marvelous document from the ICCR, "Extracting the Facts: An Investor Guide to Disclosing Risks from Hydraulic Fracturing Operations" (found in the section of their resources dealing with environmental health.)

The ICCR does groundbreaking work with putting moral and economic pressure on corporations. Their approach brings a different level of accountability and effectiveness than comes from government regulation. The ICCR guide details 12 core management goals for natural gas operations, categorized under four clearly stated principles that, I'm glad to say, mesh pretty well with the less specific principles that I outlined in Notes last week.

Pat commented that the ICCR has "filed resolutions now for 3 years and would like to think some of the disclosure [about the chemicals used in fracking] that is happening is from our pestering." I'm very grateful for this effective religious witness.

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Fracking is complicated and controversial. As with any fossil fuel development, it is a dirty process all the way from exploration and extraction to combustion. There is big money involved, and powerful interest groups, which often have different goals than local residents, future generations, and other-than-human stakeholders.

Local, national and global energy policies do need to bear in mind affordable and reliable sources of energy. They also need to be grounded in public health and safety, in the informed and vigorous participation of all stakeholders, and in the intentional and rapid transition to renewable energy sources, conservation and efficiency.

Good information, combined with clearly expressed moral values, can help us have fruitful discussions that will guide us toward better corporate and governmental policies. I urge you to keep pushing beyond the entry level information, and to deal with the more challenging levels of the issue.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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