Are Anti-Fracking Environmentalists Also Anti-Science?

From Yale Environment 360:
Last, let’s look at the latest source of green angst: shale gas and the drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to extract it. There are probably good reasons for not developing shale gas in many places. Its extraction can pollute water and cause minor earth tremors, for instance. But at root this is an argument about carbon — a genuinely double-edged issue that needs debating. For there is a good environmental case to be made that shale gas, like nuclear energy, can be part of the solution to climate change. That case should be heard and not shouted down.

Opponents of shale gas rightly say it is a carbon-based fossil fuel. But it is a much less dangerous fossil fuel than coal. Carbon emissions from burning natural gas are roughly half those from burning coal. A switch from coal to shale gas is the main reason why, in 2011, U.S. CO2 emissions fell by almost 2 percent.

We cannot ignore that. With coal’s share of the world’s energy supply rising from 25 to 30 percent in the past half decade, a good argument can be made that a dash to exploit cheap shale gas and undercut this surge in coal would do more to cut carbon emissions than almost anything else. The noted environmental economist Dieter Helm of the University of Oxford argues just this in a new book, The Carbon Crunch, out this month. 

But this is an unpopular argument. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, was pilloried by activists for making the case that gas could be a “bridge fuel” to a low-carbon future. And when he stepped down, his successor condemned him for taking cash from the gas industry to fund the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Pope was probably wrong to take donations of that type, though some environment groups do such things all the time. But his real crime to those in the green movement seems to have been to side with the gas lobby at all.

Many environmentalists are imbued with a sense of their own exceptionalism and original virtue. But we have been dangerously wrong before. When Rachel Carson’s sound case against the mass application of DDT as an agricultural pesticide morphed into blanket opposition to much smaller indoor applications to fight malaria, it arguably resulted in millions of deaths as the diseases resurged.

And more recently, remember the confusion over biofuels? They were a new green energy source we could all support. I remember, when the biofuels craze began about 2005, I reported on a few voices urging caution. They warned that the huge land take of crops like corn and sugar cane for biofuels might threaten food supplies; that the crops would add to the destruction of rainforests; and that the carbon gains were often small to non-existent. But Friends of the Earth and others trashed them as traitors to the cause of green energy.

Well, today most greens are against most biofuels. Not least Friends of the Earth, which calls them a “big green con.” In fact, we may have swung too far in the other direction, undermining research into second-generation biofuels that could be both land- and carbon-efficient.
Read the rest of this article here.

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