More myths you hear about fracking: BS Detector

A truck with the natural gas industry, one of thousands that pass through the area daily, drives through the countryside to a hydraulic fracturing site on January 18, 2012 in Springville, Penn.

Here at the Petro-State web page, we tend to favor a loud, dueling echo-chamber Beltway fight over fracking.

Except when we don't. So in the spirit of taking on old, partial and mis-information, this page offers up some myths and misperceptions that thrive in DC's rhetorical ecosystem. It will update regularly.

This dispatch includes additional B.S. Detector nuggets from our podcast experts. First up:

MYTH: DON'T WORRY, NATURAL GAS DOES OUR CARBON WORK FOR US

Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations spoke to us about his recent paper on natural gas and climate emissions. His finding: abundant fracking-produced gas subs in for dirtier coal and cuts carbon emissions, just not quickly enough. That is, it won't put the world on a path to stay within 2°C of pre-industrial temperatures.

Levi: One [myth] is that the boom in natural gas means that we don’t need to worry about climate change for now because we are reducing our emissions anyhow.

What he's taking on is the oft-argued point that natural gas is a "bridge fuel" to a low-carbon energy future. By his numbers, by the time natural gas emissions reductions take hold, it'll be too late because the long-term effects of greenhouse gas emissions will already be baked in.

Not that natural gas can't get us partially there. Levi describes it as a hedge, or insurance policy, against political inaction.

MYTH: DUDE, ENERGY INDEPENDENCE!

This is a pretty straightforward point. We still drive, and hardly any of our cars drink natural gas.

Levi: The second [myth] is that natural gas will somehow free us from dependence on foreign oil; there are a lot of issues there – the first being that natural gas does not currently go into our cars and trucks.

Sure, there are policy proposals -- gridlock alert -- to push natural gas one way or another into our transportation fuel space. But the fate of those proposals is at the very least uncertain.

MYTH: NATURAL GAS DEVELOPMENT -- FRACKING N' STUFF -- IS ABSOLUTELY SAFE

This is where the N'Stuff matters. These are not your father's drilling wells. Today's natural gas production involves several industrial steps: companies drill, cement, frac, truck chemicals, push hydrocarbons through pipelines and compressors, dispose of wastewater and on and on.

Levi: The third [myth] is that we don’t really need to worry about the local water impacts in particular of natural gas evelopment because if it’s done right then everything will be OK. I agree if its done right were in good shape, but this is a diverse industry and no one particularly cares if 99.9 percent of companies behave well -- if the .1 percent is the one that fouled up their water. So we need smart regulation that facilitates development but that reassures people and that gives these companies a continued social license to operate. And I think without that we are going to be in for continued problems.

MYTH: JOB-KILLING REGULATIONS

Job-killing regulations. Those would be the only regulations on the menu, goes a certain theology. One apparent non-believer is the respected outfit advising governments around the world, the International Energy Agency. An IEA report suggests a set of "Golden Rules" for gas production that in its estimation raise the costs for the average unconventional well by 7 percent. Levi buys that number.

Levi: There’s a myth that it’s going to be extraordinary costly if we put on smart regulations and make sure everything is done by the book. I don’t think that’s right. The IEA says 7 percent per well. And the IEA doesn’t say a 7 percent addition to total costs, it says a 7 percent addition to capital costs, which are only a fraction of the total costs.

MYTH: I'D RATHER HAVE COAL THAN NATGAS

Gas drilling foes argue large quantities of methane -- a greenhouse gas -- leak into the atmosphere during production process, citing a Cornell study. Aha! Factoring in those fugitive emissions, natural gas is worse for the climate than coal. Not true, says Levi.

Levi: There have been no studies that look at actual field emissions of natural gas and that analyze them properly and come to the conclusion that methane emissions are large.... This idea that we know that natural gas is worse than coal, or that it’s likely that natural gas is worse than coal, I think has taken on a life of its own and its counter-productive. And it doesn’t have a solid foundation. I think there’s been a series of studies – there’s been this Cornell study which has been repeatedly shown to have severe flaws. 

MYTH: FRACKING RISKS CAN'T BE MANAGED. 

Accidents happen, leading opponents to declare natural gas drilling/fracking process too dangerous for comfort. Hmmm.

Levi: We know that if we case wells properly, if we ensure that people don’t dump waste into local streams and if we have cities that handle development properly, so that the extraordinarily rapid of influx of wealth and people doesn’t cause unacceptable social environmental strain – then this can be done right. There are places that have done it well.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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