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Setting Things Straight: Bill McKibben is Very Wrong About Fracking

KEY TAKEAWAY: 

A big part of public policy debates involves countering misleading claims. In this regular feature, I highlight important facts about the key issues being debated around Washington, D.C.

Claim: Fracking causes water and air pollution.

What you need to know: After leading the charge against the Keystone XL pipeline, anti-affordable-energy zealot Bill McKibben’s next target is fracking.

“Natural gas” has “to be left in the ground,” he declared in The Nation. “We need to stop the fracking industry in its tracks, here and abroad.”

First, McKibben blames fracking for water contamination, despite it taking place thousands of feet below the ground, far away from water supplies:

The Marcellus Shale, though, underlies densely populated eastern states. It wasn’t long before stories about the pollution of farm fields and contamination of drinking water from fracking chemicals began to make their way into the national media.

The key word is “stories.” Researchers from EPA, Yale, and elsewhere have found that fracking is done safely and doesn’t contaminate water.

Most-recently, researchers at the University of Cincinnati tested water from wells before, during, and after fracking took place nearby. Their conclusion: There is “no evidence for natural gas contamination from shale oil and gas mining.”

But what really scares McKibben is supposed methane leakages. He cites a Harvard study claiming to show that “U.S. methane emissions had spiked 30 percent since 2002.” “We closed coal plants and opened methane leaks, and the result is that things have gotten worse,” he writes.

But like claims of water contamination, facts don’t live up to McKibben’s methane horror.

According to EPA data, “Methane emissions from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells are down nearly 79 percent since 2005,” writes Mark Green at Energy Tomorrow.

Methane released from fracked natural gas well completion has fallen since 2005. Source: Energy Tomorrow.

This makes sense since methane is natural gas, and energy companies are in the business of selling that to customers. There is an obvious incentive to minimize leaks and capture as much product to maximize sales.

But if that’s not enough, a top environmental thinker thinks the McKibben is “misleading” the public. Ted Nordhaus, co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute, read the same Harvard study that got McKibben quaking in his hiking boots and came to a very different conclusion:

[Researchers] concluded that while the United States has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production since 2002, “the spatial pattern of the methane increase… does not clearly point to these sources.”

To use Nordhaus’ words, the scientists that McKibben puts on a pedestal don’t “clearly point to a source of the increase in atmospheric methane concentrations.”

Fracking opponents like McKibben understand that they can’t win the public debate when it’s about the benefits the technology has given us: access to abundant, affordable energy; millions of new jobs created; and increased energy security. That’s why a recent University of Texas at Austin poll found that more people support fracking than oppose it.

Instead, they have to scare people and mold facts like Play-Dough to push their unrealistic, irrational,“keep it in the ground” fantasies of meeting America’s energy needs without fossil fuels.

The biggest energy challenge is low prices–which is a great boon for consumers. That’s a 180-degree turn from only a decade before. Fracking and the shale boom that resulted from it is an impressive illustration of the power of American enterprise and innovation. Opponents cannot be allowed to undercut that success story by misleading the public.

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EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is of 350.org founder, Bill McKibben. Photo credit: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg.

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