Tim McDonnell

Multimedia environmental journalist

Environmentalists Hate Fracking. Are They Right?

The pros and cons of natural gas, explained.

Lonny Garris/Shutterstock

Lonny Garris/Shutterstock

This story first appeared in Mother Jones

What if President Barack Obama's biggest achievement on climate change was actually a total failure?

"It appears the United States may have gotten the chemistry wrong. Really wrong."

That's the central argument of a recent story in the Nation by Bill McKibben, a journalist and environmental activist. "If you get the chemistry wrong," McKibben writes, "it doesn't matter how many landmark climate agreements you sign or how many speeches you give. And it appears the United States may have gotten the chemistry wrong. Really wrong."

McKibben's criticism is all about fracking, the controversial oil and gas drilling technique that involves blasting underground shale formations with high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals. (He made a similar case here in Mother Jones in September 2014.) Over the last decade, we've witnessed much-celebrated strides in solar and other renewable sources of electricity. But by far the most significant change in America's energy landscape has been a major shift from coal to natural gas. The trend was already underway when Obama took office, but it reached a tipping point during his administration. In March, federal energy analysts reported that 2016 will be the first year in history in which natural gas provides a greater share of American electricity than coal does:

EIA

EIA

Across the country, many coal-fired power plants are being refitted to burn natural gas, or closing entirely and being replaced by new natural gas plants. This transformation is being driven in part by simple economics: America's fracking boom has led to a glut of low-cost natural gas that is increasingly able to undersell coal. It's also driven by regulation: In its campaign to address climate change, the Obama administration has focused mostly on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prominent greenhouse gas. Coal-fired power plants are the country's No. 1 source of CO2 emissions. When natural gas is burned, it emits about half as much CO2 per unit of energy. So gas, in the administration's view, can serve as a "bridge" to a cleaner future by allowing for deep cuts in coal consumption while renewables catch up.

So far, that appears to be working. A federal analysis released this week shows that energy-related CO2 emissions (which includes electricity, transportation, and gas used in buildings) are at their lowest point in a decade, largely "because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation":

EIA

EIA

But for many environmentalists, including McKibben and 350.org—the organization he co-founded—Obama's "bridge" theory is bunk. That's because it ignores methane, another potent greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas. When unburned methane leaks into the atmosphere, it can help cause dramatic warming in a relatively short period of time. Methane emissions have long been a missing piece in the country's patchwork climate policy; this week the Obama administration is expected to roll out the first regulations intended to address the problem. But the new regulations will apply only to new infrastructure, not the sprawling gas network that already exists. So is fracking really just a bridge to nowhere?

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