Unlike Chris Faulkner, who argued in support of fracking last week, I have no financial stake in the outcome of the fracking fight. But I do have the same stake as the rest of us, in my worry about the future of the planet. Since my background is in studying climate change, I will ignore the important questions about public health and water supply that fracking raises, and just concentrate on global warming.
Fracked gas used to seem like it would be a "bridge fuel" to some clean energy future, since when you burn it you produce less carbon than when you burn coal. But this happy idea no longer seems accurate, for two reasons.
First, another name for natural gas is methane, or CH4. It's an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2, and when you frack you leak some of it into the air. We don't know how much, though government scientists recently said the one field they'd tested extensively was leaking 9% of its gas into the air. Even at a third this rate, fracked gas would be worse for the atmosphere than coal.
Second, finding a cheap new source of energy sounds great. Until you remember that having cheap fossil fuels means we'll move much less quickly towards wind and solar power. The International Energy Agency modeled what the world would look like if we made a rapid switch to gas - the temperature would still go up almost six degrees Fahrenheit, producing a planet where – as one report put it – global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.
If we actually worry about the future, there's no substitute for rapid research and development of new renewable sources, and even more rapid deployment of the ones we already know about. A recent study at the University of Delaware concluded that with an all-out effort by 2030 we could reliably and affordably depend on renewable energy 99.9 percent of the time. I'm aware that won't make as much money for the fossil fuel industry as fracking, but my sympathies really lie more with future generations.
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books on the environment, including The End of Nature (1989), the first book on climate change for a general audience. He's a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org. Time Magazine named him 'the planet's best green journalist' and the Boston Globe called him 'probably the country's most important environmentalist.' His lastest book, The Global Warming Reader, is available now.
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