5 Things U.S. Must Do To Win At Fracking

The United States can use fracking as a bridge to a cleaner future, or it can damage land, pollute water, and spew even more greenhouse gases, an energy advisor to two presidents said at the University of Chicago Thursday night.
“I think as a rule it’s far more expensive to do something stupid and then to clean it up, than to do something right in the first place,” Hal Harvey, CEO of the energy and environmental policy firm Energy Innovation, said at the Harris School of Public Policy.
“Getting this right from the start is really important and we’re definitely behind the curve on that.”
Harvey outlined five steps the U.S. should take to ensure that it exploits the benefits of its natural gas boom and avoids the costs.
“These are the things you must do if you want natural gas to be a bridge to the future. And it could be. Natural gas has a lot of advantages. These things don’t cost that much money, but they involve a different approach than just, 'let’s go get the hydrocarbons out of the ground.'”
1. Control Methane Leaks
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and other fossil fuels‑-about 50 percent cleaner‑-but it's dirtier if it enters the atmosphere unburned.
“On the face of it, gas is half as bad as coal in terms of CO2 emissions,” Harvey said, but “methane’s a very very potent greenhouse gas, 25 times as potent per molecule as CO2, and so if you have a little bit of a leak it makes a big difference. If you have more leak, you’re worse than coal.”
EPA is beginning to study leaks in the natural gas infrastructure. Current estimates put the amount of gas leaked at 2.5 percent, Harvey said, but those estimates have a margin of error of 5 percent. If 3 percent of natural gas leaks, it roughly equals coal in greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is the big question, how much is leaking. And the answer is, we don’t know.”
The question is complicated by the complexity of the system: 300,000 miles of pipeline in the U.S., including pipes in about half the nation’s homes.
2. Use Gas To Push Out Coal, Not Renewables
If natural gas competes with coal, it can help the U.S. phase out the dirtier fuel, Harvey said. If it competes with wind and solar, it can impede the growth of renewables.
States and public utility commissions can structure regulations so that coal and gas compete in one market and renewables compete in another, and they’ve done so successfully, Harvey said, through renewable portfolio standards.
The problem, according to Harvey, is that the array of PUCs across the country may act with only a dim understanding of the effect they have on energy markets.
“The point is, public utility commissions are making this choice about what gas displaces,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of natural gas. We should get good at it.”
3. Adopt Strong Well Standards
There can be more than a mile of impermeable earth between drinking water aquifers and shale deposits. So when fracking wells spoil aquifers, it’s usually because fluids escape from the vertical part of the well near the surface.
Often that happens because of poor well casings, Harvey said.
“There are not strong casing standards,” he said. “Unless you have a standard people are going to do whatever they can get away with.”
Fracking gas wells may retire in six years, but the well casing has to continue to protect the aquifer.
4. Prevent Surface Pollution
The 2005 Halliburton Loophole prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating hydraulic fracturing operations under the Clean Water Act or Safe Drinking Water Act.
“I think the federal law that exempts fracking from the Clean Water Act should be repealed. I think it’s a crime,” Harvey said. “And it’s crazy. Why would you advantage one technology over another? Why would you allow poisoning with this technology and not that technology? It doesn’t make any sense.”
The loophole leaves regulation in the hands of the states. Some have required disclosure of the chemicals used, others have regulated the venting of gases, but fracking remains largely unregulated.
5. Zone Gas Fields To Avoid Ecological Damage
Fracking wells have drilling paths, pipelines, compressors, access roads, and they may have hundreds of semi tractor trailers delivering water, sand, chemicals and other supplies.
“Clean natural gas is clean at your burner, but the extraction process is devastating to that landscape,” Harvey said.
That’s more painful in some parts of the country than others.
“You shouldn’t do this in a wilderness study area, you shouldn’t do this on the Rome Plateau in Colorado. There’s a lot of places you should just redline and say, no, we’re not going to do it here,” he said. On the other hand:
“I’ve flown over land in New Mexico and Texas where you look down and think [fracking] really is the highest and best use of this land.”
Harvey’s lecture Thursday was part of a series sponsored by the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago. He is a senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Paulson Institute, which strives to align environmental stewardship and economic growth.
Harvey served on energy panels appointed by presidents Bush-41 and Clinton. He has guided environmental policy at several foundations, including the ClimateWorks Foundation, the Energy Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
He began his career as a builder of solar homes.
“In every environmental story that I know,” he said, “not controlling your behavior at the outset has been incredibly costly.”

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