What fracking means for manufacturing and the environment: BS detector

Opponents of hydraulic fracturing in New York state attend a news conference and rally against hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, on January 11, 2012 in New York City. Are their worries justified?

Following up on our previous BS Detector entries here and here, we at Marketplace bring you another moment of naivete, a blog post invested in the assumption that presenting people with high-quality information will yield a high-quality conversation about energy and the environment.

OK, sure. As they say, I was born at night -- but not last night. It's no secret that polarized viewpoints, especially in Washington, thrive in competing echo chambers fed by their own assumptions, kind-of studies and semi-truths.

We know humans selectively discredit information, and often stay safely ensconced in their own camps when it comes to carbon pollution or handguns, or the HPV vaccine or geoengineering. In one famous 1950 study, students from competing Ivy League schools viewed the same football game on tape and came to vastly different conclusions about the illegal plays they saw. (The same way all of us Capitals' fans know that the refs robbed Ovechkin against the Rangers.)

Still, we soldier on with the latest installment of our fracking, energy and climate BS detector. These points come from some of our best information sources, who realize they'll be attacked ad hominem by dissenting... brains. So consider this our contribution to hardened positions. Today's entries come from Trevor Houser, of the Rhodium Group.

MYTH: FRACKING CUES THE MANUFACTURING RENAISSANCE!

In a recent podcast, Houser said the most important assumption to correct is the notion that the oil and gas boom will usher in a manufacturing renaissance in the U.S.

Sure, certain sectors will benefit: the steel pipemakers and other supply-chain firms; the energy-sucking heavy industrial sectors that make petrochemicals, cement and fertilizer. But Houser notes most U.S. manufacturing is energy-light, and they'll derive very small benefits. In addition, fracking-led oil and gas exports could boost the U.S. dollar, making life tougher for non-resource exporters. 

As he puts it: "And I think it's important to really interrogate that claim, because you know we’re setting economic policy in this country.... and when you do the analysis it’s much less significant than some folks suggest.

MYTH: FRACKING DESTROYS THE AIR AND CLIMATE

Here, Houser takes on those who hype the environmental costs of natural gas boom. Indeed there are violations in drilling and fracking process, just as any other industrial process. But in the aggregate, the shale gas revolution has pushed some coal-burning out of the energy system and brought some good news on the emissions and air-quality front.

Houser: "Ironically, the oil and gas boom has actually lead to a meaningful decline in U.S. CO2 emissions and emissions of other pollutants like sulfur dioxide and that's because low cost natural gas is competing very aggressively with coal in the power sector. So we’ve seen coal’s share of U.S. power generation go from 50 percent just a few years ago down to a low of 33 percent earlier this year, and much of that was because of an increase in the use of natural gas in power generation."

Another tally that matters to Houser is political math. The states contributing to this recent greening are in fact historically quite red.

"The folks who win from that are in relatively politically useful places," Houser says. "They’re not the folks you would have traditionally counted as allies of strong environmental policy. Like Texas and Arkansas and Oklahoma and Louisiana -- gas producing parts of the country could see a $15 to 20 billion a year increase in natural gas production revenue as a result of strong environmental policy. And that potentially creates new allies and new coalitions that could change the political landscape of environmental policy in this country."

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.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...