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Fracking-free utopia

As Unlikely Hospitalist writes at The Lonely Conservative (a Syracuse-area blog)

Why are environmentalists so vehemently opposed to natural gas drilling?  In upstate New York these folks are a vocal, well organized, and well financed minority who seek to force their will on the populace.

Yesterday, however, a report entitled The Shale Gas Shock was released by the British Global Warming Policy Foundation. Highlights:

Shale gas was welcomed at first by environmentalists as a lower-carbon alternative to coal...However, as it became apparent that shale gas was a competitive threat to renewable energy as well as to coal, the green movement has turned against shale. Its criticism is fivefold:

The shale gas industry uses dangerous chemicals in the fracking process that might contaminate groundwater;

poorly cased wells allow gas to escape into underground aquifers;

waste water returning to the surface during production, contaminated with salt and radon, may pollute streams; 

the industry‘s use of water for fracking depletes a scarce resource;

the exploitation of shale gas damages amenity and landscape value.

How does this paper address these issues?  A quick summary:

  • The actual [slickwater] chemicals are used in many industrial and even domestic applications: polyacrylamide as a friction reducer, bromine, methanol and naphthalene as antimicrobials, hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol as scale inhibitors, and butanol and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether as surfactants. At high dilution these are unlikely to pose a risk to human health in the event they reach groundwater (§45).
  • Groundwater contamination by fracking fluid is possible but unlikely if proper procedures are followed, and gas contamination of aquifers occurs naturally and has not usually been found to result from shale gas production (§s 46-52).
  • ...the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has tested the water in seven rivers to which treated waste water from gas wells is discharged and found not only no elevation in radioactivity but:

All samples were at or below background levels of radioactivity; and all samples showed levels below the federal drinking water standard for Radium 226 and 228. -- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 7 March 2011 (§s 53-55)

  • A single shale gas well uses in total about the same amount of water as a golf course uses in three weeks (§ 56).
  • The concrete, forest clearance, and visual impact of more than 50 wind turbines with equivalent energy output is gigantic by comparison [with landscape and habitat impact resulting from shale gas extraction] (§s 57-59).

We've blogged about fracking a few times; this post in particular is relevant here.

It would seem that if environmentalists are really interested in lowering CO2 emissions, then they 

would do well to heed the advice of Voltaire and not make the best the enemy of the good. Rapid decarbonisation using renewables is not just expensive and environmentally damaging, it is impossible. However, switching as much power generation from coal to gas as possible, and as much transport fuel from oil to gas as possible, would produce rapid and dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

But as we've also blogged about before, maybe those reductions in carbon dioxide emissions aren't really the point. Maybe arriving at a "sustainable" utopia is the point...but let's remember that utopia means not only "good place" but "no place."

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