By Nick Stracco
President Barack Obama has outlined his second-term plan to address climate change. While the president laid out some positive actions that put us on the right path, including calling for an end to the limitless amount of carbon pollution that power plants can pump into the atmosphere and committing the Department of Defense to increase its percentage of energy that comes from clean and renewable sources, he continues to champion an all-of-the-above strategy that undermines our ability to shift away from the very fuels responsible for warming and polluting our atmosphere. And the president’s plan reaffirms his embrace of risky fracked natural gas.
Replacing One Bad Fuel for Another
While many of his plans are where we need to be heading, the president’s support of natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports takes us in the wrong direction. Increasing natural gas exploration means increasing fracking. While the natural gas industry touts its fossil fuel as “clean-burning,” this rapidly expanding energy source must be carefully studied at every stage of its life cycle, not just its combustion. Proponents of natural gas like to claim that it can replace dirty coal plants and reduce America’s carbon footprint. But scientific studies show that fracking’s release of greenhouse gases is as significant as coal-fired generators.
During the process of hydraulic fracturing, a percentage of the gas escapes into the atmosphere. These “fugitive gases” are extremely important because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. According to a Cornell study, in a 20-year timeframe methane is 105 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping solar energy in the atmosphere.
One study from Princeton and the Environmental Defense Fund concludes that natural gas can have immediate greenhouse gas benefits only if the fugitive gases are below 3.2 percent of total harvested gas. Early studies are showing that fugitive gases are higher than that figure, from 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent, according to a Cornell study, to the whopping 9 percent reported at an American Geophysical Union meeting recently in San Francisco. Clearly, if these studies are indicative of fracking wells across the country, the president’s plan to switch from coal to natural gas is indeed a step backwards.
Other Problems with Fracking
Fugitive gases are not the only problem with fracking. Fracking fluids contain sand, water and dangerous chemicals that natural gas companies do not have to disclose to the public while they pump them into the ground. These chemicals have been shown to be fatal for livestock exposed to them for as little as one hour. Fracking is also extremely water intensive, requiring up to 6 million gallons of water for a single well. This excessive use of water puts stress on communities that rely on these fresh water supplies for drinking water. The water is shipped in by diesel trucks, further adding to the carbon footprint of the process.
Why So Secret?
Among the worst of the problems with fracking is what is called a non-disclosure agreement. When natural gas companies lease land from homeowners, they include a clause in the contract that acts as a gag rule, prohibiting the homeowner from speaking publicly about any groundwater contamination that may occur. If fracking is as safe as the industry claims, why does it go to such lengths to keep these homeowners quiet?
The Building Nationwide Resistance to Fracking
While some environmental advocates were encouraged by Obama’s speech, many others felt thrown under the natural gas-powered bus. Affected communities across America are stepping up in opposition to fracking to protect the health of themselves and their children. Stop The Frack Attack, a growing network of 140 organizations that represent the communities affected by fracking, has come out in strong opposition to Obama’s plan because of its heavy support of fracking.
Backing Fracking Undercuts Obama’s Goal
Obama used strong words to underline the grave necessity of taking bold action on climate change. However, pushing his climate agenda as one that includes hydraulic fracturing contradicts and undermines his claimed desire to transition to “a low-carbon, clean economy.” As he said himself, “We can’t just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge we face.” He’s right, whether one is talking about an oil drill or a fracking drill.