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Science, Well sort of…fracking redux

I've been really agonizing over this one. In fact, a draft of this piece in various forms has been on my computer for several months, as I seem unable or unwilling to finish it. For background, it’s been about a year since I completed my series on fracking (for the truly nerdy and bored, see 6 most recent posts here) where I came to the conclusion that, on balance, the result of fracking and the increased use of natural gas would be a net positive as it relates to climate change by leading to reduced GHG emissions. I admitted that I came to the conclusion by filtering the evidence available through my own set of biases, no matter how hard I tried to not do so. I also noted that this conclusion was of course subject to change on the basis of new evidence. Over this time new evidence has indeed come forward, as ever more studies are completed. Several are around the issue of methane release and so called life cycle greenhouse gas emissions (here, here and here.) Others take a more holistic look at the issue (here). But I double dare you to read them and interpret the conclusions as anything other than providing data the can be used to support either side of the fracking debate….and of course, they all finish with “more research is needed”. So the evidence has not swayed me. Beyond pure data, climate activists continue to make a full throated case that fracking is bad for a variety of interrelated reasons, such as in this Mother Jones article. But their case is one muddled by ideology and is not made on the basis of the science. So while neither the new evidence, nor the thrum of anti-fracking activism, has persuaded me to change my conclusion, I have to admit that I have indeed changed my view. BAM, there, I said it. What I am forced to admit is that I made a fundamental error in my previous approach to this issue, and one that we can all fall prey to when dealing with inherently complex issues...I asked the wrong question. I posed “Is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?” By narrowly and carefully framing my question in this manner, I created a construct that would easily allow for a “yes” answer, but at the same time I lost sight of the bigger implications of both the question and the answer. First I erred by relying on the underlying assumption that we actually have the time to take advantage of a so-called bridge or ramp energy source such as natural gas, and still achieve “sustainable outcomes”…translation, hold global warming to a manageable level. Sadly, nearly all the trends in the data suggest that we simply do not have that time. (Here) Another factor that has altered my thinking is a change in my belief that we need such a bridge fuel in the first place. This was predicated on the assumption that renewable or zero carbon sources could not be scaled at a sufficient pace to meet real world demands. Again, it looks like I was wrong, and the evidence comes from none other than my fatherland, Germany. My wacky relatives got me all exercised when they announced that they were phasing out their nuclear program in a transition to solar and wind. I felt certain this was wrongheaded, knee jerk anti-nuclear nihilism that would only result in more reliance on coal. Well son of a gun, wrong again. It looks like Germany is indeed on track to transition to renewables such and wind and solar. (Here) Finally, I think the biggest factor in my re-evaluation springs from the simple observation made by my friend Dan Miller when he says “ you can’t reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere”, through the use of natural gas. So based on all of the above, I withdraw my original conclusion, but with a caveat. I don’t think it will be constructive to be “anti-fracking” any more than I think it is useful to be “anti-nuclear”. Where I think we all need to put all of our energies is to be “pro-zero carbon.” Let’s focus on being for something rather than against something. It tends to work out better that way. So, what do you believe?

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