Shale gas and associated hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has become a hot-button environmental issue in the United States and around the world. Fears of widespread groundwater contamination, chemicals added to frac fluids, earthquakes, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land use and more have fueled opposition to shale gas development in New York and many other states. A good deal of misinformation has made its way into public discourse that has clouded the issue. The purpose of this talk is to provide some background geological and engineering information on the issue and to take a more in-depth look at some of the environmental pros and cons of shale gas development.
Starting with the assumption that the US and the rest of the world are going to continue to use energy at something like present day levels or more, properly regulated shale gas development is an attractive option from an environmental standpoint. As long as it is displacing coal and being developed and transported at high safety and environmental standards, its increased use will likely lead to cleaner air, cleaner water and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
The shale gas revolution has led to increased production of natural gas which has caused the price of gas to fall to the point where it is competitive with coal for power generation and many power plants have switched from coal to gas and as a result. Burning gas emits half the CO2 and a tiny fraction of the mercury, SO2 and particulate matter that burning coal does for the same amount of energy produced. This switch from coal to gas has been the main reason that US greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to their lowest level since the mid-1980s. Finally, natural gas is perhaps the best energy source currently available to back up intermittent sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar.
Rather than competing with these energy sources natural gas may actually make them more efficient and economically viable. Natural gas plants can cycle up and cycle down far more rapidly than coal and nuclear plants which means that there is far less time when both the renewable source and the backup power source are both producing electricity.