Op-ed column: To frack or not to frack, part 1

All of man’s innovations involve some risk — and some serious consequences. But the mere fact that t

As Gov. Cuomo gets closer to making a decision on hydrofracking in New York state, the meetings and rallies of the opposition to fracking are getting louder. The latest meeting was held in late August with representatives from Pennsylvania who have been living in areas where fracking is ongoing. The anti group in New York is using these guests from Pennsylvania to scare us into stopping the fracking in New York. Even the town board in Niskayuna wants to ban fracking in the town.

The stories that were told were very scary — lots of noise during drilling, nighttime flare-up clearly visible as gas was burned off, some lives disrupted. These scenarios are no doubt true and for those families and homes it is a tragedy and they should be compensated, or made whole, by the contractors that did the drilling.

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But these problems are only during construction. When it is completed, the only sound to disturb the replanted fields is a faint sound as gas passes to an underground pipe network.

The bigger picture

But the bigger picture should reflect certain facts about all progress and technology. All of man’s innovations involve some risk — and some serious consequences. But the mere fact that there are unintended results should not allow the banning of these innovations and technologies. There are far worse unintended consequences from merely driving your car on our highways. Thousands of innocent folks, including babies and children, are killed every year from car accidents, but no one suggests that we ban cars.

Why not? Because we accept that risk to live our lives the way we choose.

We could eliminate all traffic deaths by simply lowering the national speed limits on highways to 10 miles per hour. But we don’t do that — we accept the risk.

The real story of increased natural gas is the benefits. These benefits are lower CO2 emissions from power plants and trucks, lower energy costs for us to heat our homes and for industry competing with foreign companies that have higher energy costs. Some companies with foreign operations will move back to the USA because of low energy costs.

In America, shale gas flowing out of the ground has lowered gas prices recently to a 10-year low. In Asia and parts of Europe, gas can be 10 times the American price.

In addition, the lower price has caused many electrical power generation plants to switch from coal to natural gas. Between 2006 and 2012, gas went from providing 20 percent of America’s electricity to nearly 25 percent, mainly at the expense of coal. For decades, coal had provided well over half of America’s electricity. In 2011, coal-generated power was down to 42 percent. Over the past five years America has recorded a decline in greenhouse gas emissions of 450 metric tons, the biggest anywhere in the world.

The International Energy Agency estimates that gas will overtake coal only if new gas reserves are fully exploited. Only half a decade ago it looked as though the world might have only 50 or 60 years worth of gas. Now shale and other sources have increased that period to 200 years or more, by some estimates.

What has made gas so exciting is not just the steep rise in supply but also the wide range of its uses. It is a flexible fuel, capable of heating homes, fueling industrial boilers and providing feedstock for the petrochemicals industry.

Multiple advantages

Dow Chemical and others have announced new investments in America to take advantage of low gas prices. Methanex, the world’s biggest methanol producer, is planning to close a methanol plant in Chile and build it in Louisiana. The company could return manufacturing jobs to America.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers, a large accountancy firm, estimates that lower feedstock and energy costs could result in 1 million more American factory jobs by 2025.

The place where natural gas might have the biggest impact is in American cars. Transportation is responsible for around a third of all American carbon emissions. Natural gas produces around 25 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline. Gas at the current price is the equivalent to a barrel of oil at $15 rather than $100. For the moment, cars, buses and trucks are almost entirely dependent on refined crude oil. But vehicles can be propelled by compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas.

America’s fleet of natural-gas vehicles doubled between 2003 and 2009, though at 110,000 it still makes up only 0.1 percent of all vehicles on the road.

Dallas-Fort Worth Airport runs 500 maintenance vehicles on gas (and has allowed fracking beneath one of its runways). AT&T is buying 8,000 compressed natural gas vehicles over five years, giving it the largest commercial natural gas fleet in the country. School buses, garbage trucks and other municipal vehicles are switching to gas.

The water issue

Water is potentially a more serious problem, both because a lot of it is needed to frack wells and because local groundwater is seen to be at risk of pollution.

A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology report says that shale gas has a good environmental record. With more than 20,000 wells drilled in the past decade, there have been only a few instances of groundwater contamination, all of them a result of not following existing regulations. There does not appear to be any systemic risk. Fracking takes place thousands of feet below the water table, and fracking zones are separated from groundwater by fairly impermeable rocks.

A shale well does use a lot of water — an average of up to 5 million gallons over its lifetime — but this is no more than a golf course in Florida consumes in three weeks, according to one estimate.

The bottom line is that hydrofracking creates jobs, reduces our home heating costs, helps the environment, reduces oil payments to foreign countries and otherwise creates more prosperity.

With thanks to a report in The Economist magazine for some of the data in this report.

Don Cazer, former chairman of Capital Region Energy Forum and a retired GE engineer, lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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