Can Fracking Help Achieve Climate Stabilization and Long-term Energy Independence?

In some recent posts, Joel Darmstader and I discussed aspects of North American energy independence, with a focus on oil independence. In the last post in the series, Joel looked at environmental consequences of the rapidly changing continental energy picture. I think that issue is worth a second look.

The development of natural resources often disturbs the natural environment. Fossil fuels—coal, petroleum and natural gas—are all extracted via mining or drilling and are commonly associated with environmental damages. Additionally the use of fossil fuels for energy is associated with environmental damages, particularly air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) associated with global warming. Nevertheless, the benefits of this energy are essential to the high standard of living in North America, and environmental damages are generally accepted by society as a nonmarket cost of energy production that needs to be mitigated and managed through regulation.

The two new sources of energy for North America—the Canadian oil sands and the fracking of shale oil and gas—offer both new environmental challenges and new opportunities. Joel and Alan Krupnick have both discussed the environmental impacts of oil sands development. Fracking has risks too. Concerns generally relate to ground and surface water, water consumption, and links to chronic seismic activity.

Clearly, there are environmental challenges. The technology associated with fracking is still in its infancy and improvements are underway and likely to continue. Whether these newly developed domestic sources of oil and natural gas involve significant environmental disturbances and, if so, how much they may differ from traditional fossil fuel extraction methods remains to be definitively determined. However, extraction continues even as scientific and regulatory authorities continue to assess the process and the environmental implications.

But the large new sources of natural gas available with fracking also create environmental opportunities. The problem of energy self-sufficiency is confounded by concerns over carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel energy. In essence, the long-term problem involves the adequacy of energy fuels constrained by concerns over GHG emissions associated with that energy source.

On its face, progress toward North American energy self-sufficiency, particularly as it relates to fossil fuels and oil, appears to exacerbate the GHG environmental problem. However, this is proving not to be true—GHG emissions associated natural gas are only about 50% of the emissions of coal per unit of energy produced. The most advantageous place to substitute natural gas for coal is in electrical power generating facilities. This substitution is already underway as the price of natural gas has declined sharply. The EIA has projected that coal’s share of U.S. electricity production could fall to 30 percent in 2035 (from 42% in 2011) as natural gas is substituted. Shifts in the U.S. energy mix are not limited to electricity: Alan Krupnick has shown the considerable potential of natural gas in the transport sector.

The agreeable result is that U.S. GHG emissions in 2011 were down about 2% from the preceding year, partly due to this shift. Indeed, some analysts suggest that emission reduction targets for 2020, once viewed as unattainable, may be achievable in part due to the large role for natural gas. The huge increases in shale gas and oil production driven by fracking technology have changed the national mix of fossil fuels and promise to continue this shift into the future.

If these trends continue, there would also be a dramatic reduction in GHG emissions from electrical power generating facilities, and perhaps with a lag, in transport sector emissions. Furthermore, this power generation change need not be driven by legislation or policy, but would be largely the outcome of the market’s response to dramatically lower natural gas prices and to the expectation that substantially lower prices would continue into the future.

New oil and gas supplies offer possibilities of moving North American and US to oil and energy self-sufficiency. Although environmental challenges associated with the development and use of fossil fuels persist, they appear manageable.

Concerns are sometimes expressed that natural gas substitution will defuse pressures to develop non-fossil fuel solutions. However, in the longer run fossil fuel energy will likely need to be replaced by less environmentally damaging renewable energy sources such solar and wind . Nevertheless, the road to a major role for renewables, e.g., wind, solar, is a long one (Nathan Richardson wrote on this natural gas “bridge” last week). Natural gas, while not perfect, could facilitate our transition to major reliance on non-emitting renewables.

About Roger A. Sedjo

Roger Sedjo is a senior fellow and the director of RFF's Forest Economics and Policy Program. His research interests include forests and global environmental problems; climate change and biodiversity; public lands issues; long-term sustainability of forests; industrial forestry and demand; timber supply modeling; international forestry; global forest trade; forest biotechnology; and land use change. He has written or edited 14 books related to forestry and natural resources.

Views expressed above are those of the author. Resources for the Future does not take institutional positions on legislative or policy questions. All information contained on Common Resources is intended for informational and educational purposes and may only be used for these purposes. Please see RFF's Terms of Use for further information.

5 Responses to “Can Fracking Help Achieve Climate Stabilization and Long-term Energy Independence?”
  1. Chris says:

    The Cornell Study (here: and two recent EPA studies have found that shale gas fields leak enough methane to vitiate any CO2 savings. Why is this not addressed in the article? How is this manageable?

    The IEA sees this as a major concern (see The Carbon Brief’s Q&A session with relevant links here:

    As a Senior Fellow, is it not your job to be aware of such confounding factors when making an (irresponsible) argument like this?

  2. Roger Sedjo says:

    Although the jury is still out, as Chris’s website piece on Cornell acknowledges, one recent technical evaluation from MIT “has suggested that shale gas production does not result in greater greenhouse gas omissions than conventional gas, as some previous studies have suggested” (Carbon Market North America p 4). More to the point, not only are the findings regarding the extent of damages mixed but, the fracking technology is in its infancy and undoubtedly will improve. Whether these improvements are adequate to address environmental concerns remains to be determined. Finally, is should be noted that the title of the piece includes a ‘?’.

    • Chris says:

      This is a fair response, thank you. I would argue that the evidence is mounting to the contrary of that MIT article (see recent EPA studies in Utah and Colorado).

      More importantly, I would also argue that this is irrelevant: that even if fracking is no worse than conventional gas, it is still leading to lower gas prices and a higher percentage of gas being used for energy. Supposedly this should provide reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but (whether from fracking or conventional extraction), gas fields are being shown to leak enough methane to offset CO2 savings.

      The real question here is whether, given this evidence, gas is a good enough ‘bridge’ that a group like RFF should be giving it play like this. Considering the lifespan of a natural gas power plant is about 25-30 years, even if gas provided the GHG reduction benefits that are being touted, this would still not provide a dramatic enough reduction to meet the necessary CO2 targets to avoid some of the worst projections of climate change.

      Then add on top of that the fact that so much CH4 is leaking, and you have a very serious problem.

      Are renewables really that far off? I would say this research indicates otherwise:

      Further, because of the lifespan of the natural gas power plants, will it really be a bridge? Or an impediment? Natural gas energy infrastructure is only going to delay renewable infrastructure and the kind of systemic grid changes that are necessary. Politically, it could mean far less support for renewables, which equates to less money for R&D.

      I don’t propose to know the answers to creating a truly sustainable energy system, but I would say that the answer to the question posed in this blog post is such a resounding ‘no’ as to wonder why it’s being given attention.

  3. Roger Sedjo says:

    The discussion of shale gas is not an either or proposition. The truth is that we will need a transition (bridge) between our current fossil fuel energy system and then post-fossil fuel era. Indeed, markets have already responded in that transition as low natural gas prices resulting from the development of shale gas are already displacing coal in electrical power production. A benefit has been a reduction in coal usage and CO2 emissions as reflected in EIA data. Note that this is the case even as most renewables are receiving very large subsidies. Issues about the optimal combination of energy renewables, while interesting and indeed a critical component in the long-term transition, do not preclude a large role for shale gas. Whether we approve or not, shale gas is already playing a significant role. Hence it behooves us to continue to examine the both benefits and costs of the phenomenon.

  4. Many thanks for applying some time in order to
    write “Can Fracking Help Achieve Climate Stabilization and
    Long-term Energy Independence? : Common Resources”.
    Thanks a ton for a second time -Everett

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