Fracking: A Temporary Solution to Climate Change

Fracking has developed a bad reputation as the boom in shale gas production fostered concerns in communities over the United States. Oil and gas producers need to work with regulators and the media to change this perception, and energy consumers need to understand the relative effects on climate change from the current available energy sources. Only then, can all parties involved work together optimize energy production and greenhouse gas emissions while meeting demand needs.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking”, has stirred political debate in recent years as communities and organizations have expressed concern over its environmental impact. Fracking is the process of pumping a mixture, comprised mostly of water, sand, and acid, into geological formations to break apart the rock and allow oil and gas to flow to surface more easily. The fracking of natural gas, mostly shale, wells has led to a surge in gas production in the United States, raising alarms concerning the contamination of the surrounding air and water sources. During this uproar, the major oil companies have shied away from answering questions regarding natural gas carbon emissions. The US’s second largest oil and gas company, Chevron, has continually resisted discussing how regulations such as carbon taxes would affect fossil fuel production and climate change. [1] What most people don’t know is that, “gas, clean and highly efficient, is far better for the environment than coal, its main competitor” [2], and Chevron needs to vocalize this.

Shale’s (Undeserved) Bad Reputation

Unfortunately for the majors, some smaller, independent exploration and production (E&P) companies stained the reputation of the shale business in its early days when methane leaked from poorly designed fracked wells. The large E&P companies, including Chevron, are much more stringent in their safety and environmental standards, but have failed to call out this source of negativity toward fracking. Instead, Chevron has been “reflexively fighting any regulation, even reasonable ones,” to “create the impression of having something to hide” [2]. Chevron needs to start working with regulators in support of carbon taxes to shift energy production away from coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide emissions as natural gas [4]. Table 1 shows the relative greenhouse gas emissions for various fuels.

Pounds of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (Btu) of energy for various fuels [3]
Table 1: Pounds of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (Btu) of energy for various fuels [3]
What About Renewables?

The technology isn’t available to make them economical at a large scale. There “needs to be a wave of technological advances in the renewable energy sector for the industry to get back on track.” [5] But at this time, “the hard truth is that if the country were to move away from natural gas, the big winner would be coal, not solar or wind” [4]. Furthermore, as shown in Figure 1, increasing global demand in energy will force oil and gas to remain in demand for decades to come.

Figure 1 World Energy Consumption by Energy Source 1990-2040 [3]
Figure 1: World Energy Consumption by Energy Source 1990-2040 [3]
The Solution

Chevron needs to follow the other majors (Shell, BP, etc.) in collaborating with regulators to save the reputation of the shale business. The public’s skewed view of the negative environmental effects of fracking and shale gas production needs to be put into perspective, so that the shale business can be seen as a temporary solution to more environmentally harmful energy sources.

In addition to cooperating with regulators, Chevron and other majors need to contribute to the technological advances required to further decrease the environment effect of natural gas. Specifically, “Demonstrating carbon capture on gas-fired power would undercut the argument that shale gas is incompatible with long-term action on climate change.” [2]

The majors also have the ability to invest a large amount of capital in renewable research. Chevron is currently investing in geothermal energy, advanced biofuels, wind power and solar energy to create more renewable energy sources for future generations. [6]

Conclusion

Energy demand is going to increase globally, and we will need to leverage multiple technologies and energy resources to meet that demand. Energy producers and consumers need to stop pointing fingers and work together to determine the optimal way meet demands with the least possible effect on climate change.

(615 Words)

[1] Bradley Olson, “Chevron Boss: Climate Change Could Help Business,” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/chevron-boss-climate-change-could-help-business-1464132869, accessed November 3, 2016.
[2] Robin Mills, “Gas Industry has a Great Story to Tell but Doesn’t,” The National, October 9, 2016, http://www.thenational.ae/business/energy/robin-mills-gas-industry-has-a-great-story-to-tell–but-doesnt, accessed November 3, 2016.
[3] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Outlook,” May 11, 2016, https://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/
[4] Joe Nocera, “Shale Gas and Climate Change,” The New York Times, July 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/14/opinion/joe-nocera-shale-gas-and-climate-change.html, accessed November 3, 2016.
[5] “Technological advances in renewable energy,” http://reports.worldfinance.com/technological-advances-in-renewable-energy/
[6] Chevron, “renewable energy and emerging technology,” https://www.chevron.com/corporate-responsibility/climate-change/renewable-energy

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2 thoughts on “Fracking: A Temporary Solution to Climate Change

  1. I agree on two fronts: (1) that Fracking has definitely received more than its fair share of bad publicity and (2) we will to leverage more than one energy source to address increasing demand for energy and to significantly shift away from greenhouse gases.

    Unfortunately, though, with videos like these: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LBjSXWQRV8 I think it will be very difficult for major companies to overturn this conversation and convince regulators and the general public (which, at this point, is also important to convince) of the benefits of fracking and why we have to develop them alongside Renewable resources.

    Could resources used to convince regulators and the public of the benefits of Fracking be better used to hasten development of Renewables instead?

  2. Really interesting! Didn’t realize that natural gas emissions were lower than most of the other energy sources listed, or that we’d be strongly coal dependent even through 2040. A few thoughts:
    1) Does the fracking process itself generate emissions (e.g., from the use of drills, from chemicals required to make the pumping mixture) that ultimately result in higher emissions than just the leaked natural gas itself?
    2) This seems on face to be one of those examples where a relatively complicated issue (what energy sources are most sustainable, what tradeoffs need to be made in the short run vs. long run) is distilled into a few easily digestable sound bites (fracking is harmful for the environment) that may cloud actual science. Unfortunately, for companies to successfully undertake this option, they will likely have to invest significant marketing dollars for general awareness purposes, which may make the cost of investment too high.

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