Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s nominee to become Secretary of Energy, encountered a minor tempest this week when environmentalists unearthed a 2011 MIT study on natural gas production and fracking, which Moniz led as the head of MIT’s Energy Institute. The study, which concluded that the potential environmental damage from fracking is “challenging, but manageable,” was conducted by a team that included two researchers with ties to the oil and gas industry. The White House quickly defended Moniz as an independent scientist, and the controversy is unlikely to keep Moniz from succeeding Stephen Chu atop the Energy Department.
Independent or not, the MIT report now rests on a shelf that groans under the weight of fracking studies and reports that multiply almost as fast as the natural gas wells themselves. The latest version, which heavily favors the natural gas rush, comes from the University of Southern California and the Communications Institute, an L.A. think tank, and was “funded in part by a grant from the Western States Petroleum Assn.,” reports The Los Angeles Times.
There are plenty of examples of counter-studies detailing the horrors of fracking. The granddaddy of anti-fracking reports was produced by Robert Howarth of Cornell in 2011, and concluded that over the long term, “shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil.”
Howarth’s gloomy findings have been disputed by studies from “the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Energy Department and numerous independent university teams, including a Carnegie Mellon study partly financed by the Sierra Club,” noted Forbes contributor Jon Entine.
Another 5 Years
In New York, a highly touted report from the Geisinger Health System is “likely years away,” the project’s leader acknowledged recently. New York lawmakers and Governor Andrew Cuomo are in a struggle over limitations – or an outright ban – on fracking in the state, which overlies parts of the vast Marcellus Shale formation, which some geologists believe holds enough shale gas to provide U.S. electricity needs for a century or more. New York’s review of the social and environmental effects of fracking is now in its fifth year, with no end in sight.
So proliferative is the research on fracking that the industry is in danger of being “entombed” by endless “iterative studies,” wrote a commenter on The Motley Fool, a stock-trading website. Some supporters have had enough: University of Oklahoma professor David Deming, who has a rich history of provocative statements dismissing the concepts of peak oil and renewable energy, declared recently in a Wall Street Journal editorial that the oil and gas industry needs to man up and emulate the NRA by forcefully confronting its critics and “seizing the moral high ground.”
“The fossil-fuel industry—which could be the most powerful lobby in Washington—is hopelessly ineffective and self-defeating,” Deming moaned.
That is manifestly false – Steve Coll’s book on Exxon Mobil, Private Empire, provides 600 pages of evidence that the oil majors are among the most powerful entities on earth, often functioning as quasi-governments, for both good and ill, in the countries in which they operate.
At any rate, the thousands of pages of research on the effects of fracking scatter, for now, like confetti on the tracks as the locomotive of the natural gas boom thunders past. That train is not slowing down soon. Rather than taking an adversarial stance to regulators and environmental groups, natural gas producers could reduce their costs and risks by cooperating with regulators, being transparent about the chemicals they inject underground, and sharing infrastructure in areas with multiple producers. Those are the conclusions of, you guessed it, a study by Accenture.
There are efforts afoot to do just that. The Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development is working on a new set of standards for the industry that would include a certification process to verify that producers are operating in environmentally safe and socially responsible ways. As my colleague Dave Hurst reports, the Center has been set up by a group of organizations across the energy spectrum, including Chevron, Shell, the Clean Air Task Force, Consol Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund, Group Against Smog and Pollution, Heinz Endowments, and the William Penn Foundation. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is helping to develop the technical standards. Such cooperation offers a much more productive approach than burying your opponents in a blizzard of conflicting studies.
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