Drilling Deeper on a Fracking Ban

October 21, 2020

I’ve posted my take on how Joe Biden and Kamala Harris might best answer questions on fracking.
Below, a deeper dive by Zeke Hausfather and his colleague Alex Trembath expands on a few points. You may agree or disagree, but my friend Zeke is renowned as a careful researcher, and deserves full attention.

Zeke Hausfather and Alex Trembath in Politico:

Hydraulic fracturing — the controversial oil and gas extraction method usually called “fracking” — has divided Democrats and the political left for a decade now. Many in the environmental community claim that allowing fracking is incompatible with climate action. Others, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, take a more nuanced position: During their respective debates, both Biden and Harris emphasized that a Biden-Harris administration would not ban fracking. 

While most environmental groups tend to be on the side of a ban, there are actually strong environmental justifications for Biden and Harris’s light touch on fracking today. In fact, there are reasons to worry that even a partial ban on fracking could slow decarbonization efforts in the near-term. What’s more, the deployment of some clean energy technologies could depend, perhaps counterintuitively, on fracking.

Fracking, which involves pumping chemicals at high pressure underground to extract gas from shale rock formations, has driven a revolution in the U.S. fossil fuel sector, doubling natural gas production since 2005. That surge has pushed down prices dramatically, making natural gas-fired electricity much more cost competitive with coal power. Today, coal accounts for only 23 percent of U.S. electricity generation, compared to over 50 percent two decades ago; much of that shift is due to the fracking boom.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, coal-to-gas switching has driven the majority of CO2 emissions reductions in the power sector every year since 2005. And while methane releases are an important downside to gas use that needs to be better addressed, even taking them into account, natural gas is still better for the climate than coal.

Another fear of environmentalists is that the expansion of natural gas will slow the adoption of cleaner renewable energy. But the shale gas revolution has not demonstrably reduced the impressive growth of solar and wind power. Since 2005, wind generation has risen by over a factor of 15, and solar by over a factor of 140. Experts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have observed that, because natural gas plants are so flexible in terms of when they start and stop production, they actually pair well with solar and wind power, whose output is intermittent. 

By all appearances, natural gas production in the United States has acted exactly like the “bridge fuel” many imagined it would, providing an interim step in energy development from legacy fuels like coal and oil to the renewables of the future. It is a bridge that will ultimately have to end to meet the Biden campaign’s goal to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, but in the meantime natural gas is both helping dismantle the old fossil fuel economy while laying the groundwork for a new, renewable one.

Biden and Harris are clearly not interested in cutting that bridge off abruptly, a step that would offer a lifeline to coal power which is currently operating at less than half capacity and could easily ramp back up if gas prices rise. Nor are they likely interested in scaring away voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other oil-and-gas-heavy swing states. What’s more, since the vast majority of U.S. fracking occurs on private lands, even the Biden campaign promise to end new fracking leases on public lands might amount to little more than a symbolic gesture.

But while a ban on fracking on public lands would likely have little impact on total U.S. natural gas production, it could do serious harm to another renewable energy sector: new enhanced geothermal systems. This technology, known as EGS, often depends on hydraulic fracturing technologies and techniques to extract heat from deep rock formations. And though geothermal generated only 0.4 percent of U.S. electricity in 2019, there are signs that it could be on the verge of a boom; one estimate suggests that EGS systems could supply 1,300 times more energy than conventional geothermal technologies.

This is where avoiding a blanket ban on new fracking on public lands could be critical. Unlike natural gas, the best geothermal resources are spread across the American West, where the federal government manages almost half the land. So while the limited impact on natural gas production might well be an intentional feature of the Biden-Harris plan, the possible impacts on the nascent geothermal industry are certainly a bug.

Restricting natural gas development would have knock-on effects on other industries that also need to be considered. The electric power sector only consumes about a third of the natural gas produced in the United States. Another third goes to industrial applications, such as synthetic fertilizer and petrochemicals production. Unlike electric power, there are currently few affordable and scalable technological alternatives to natural gas in these industries. Ending natural gas consumption in our factories will require technological innovation of similar scale and scope to what we’ve achieved in the electric power sector. Limits on supply will have limited effect until that point given the lack of alternatives.

Either way we need to prioritize closing coal plants in the short-term, and move away from natural gas by gradually replacing it with clean energy alternatives; abruptly ending fracking today would make that decarbonization process harder, not easier. 

Some nuance from Seaver Wang on Twitter:

Important point: the piece points out the risk that a poorly-implemented public-lands fracking ban may harm efforts to develop clean enhanced geothermal energy, which has high resource potential on Western US public lands and uses similar drilling technology. 

Important critique: We must acknowledge that actors in the gas fracking industry continue to flout many enviro protections and oppose greater accountability for methane leaks + local enviro impacts. The gas industry needs to be consistently held to far higher standards. 

Important point: The article does point out that we are rapidly approaching the tail end of the trend of gas killing off coal in the US, and underlines the importance of meeting a net-zero power sector by 2035 as proposed by Biden/Harris.

 Important critique: As @J_Lovering points out, gas isn’t good news for clean energy across the board, and is also responsible for driving existing nuclear out of the market and dissuading new nuclear projects.

Overall, #EnergyTwitter has identified many good, valid critiques. All the same, @hausfath and @atrembath still raise important points that deserve consideration + discussion. And as all political analysis indicates, a US fracking ban is political fantasy anyways. (11) At any rate, the core of Biden/Harris climate plan is that by 2035, we will no longer be burning gas for electricity (at least not without CCS), or any other fossil fuel. 

That’s hugely important, and next to that a fracking ban on public lands is frankly insignificant.

2 Responses to “Drilling Deeper on a Fracking Ban”

  1. jimbills Says:

    The American Petroleum Institute agrees with Hausfather:

    Is natural gas slightly better than coal for global warming? Possibly/probably. But the point is that instead of building much needed renewables infrastructure, one larger than we currently are achieving, we’re continuing to build fossil fuel infrastructure with natural gas, leaving thousands of wells with leaky capping, and creating warming instead of halting it.

    Saying anything else smacks of rationalization for the status quo, twiddling our thumbs with a grin while waiting for the market to ‘solve it’.

  2. A carbon tax would be an effective way to dampen enthusiasm for natural gas without an outright ban on fracking. This would apply to fossil-based carbon destined for combustion & emission, for example this is the approach in H.R. 763, a bill called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividends Act, now in the U.S. House with 82 co-sponsors.

    This would give all non-emitting energy sources a built-in price advantage, relative to fossil fuels, including natural gas. So gas would gradually lose customers and investors. How gradually would be a question of the size of the tax. For H.R. 763 it’s $15 per ton of CO2 emitted when the fuel is burned, increasing by $10 each year. That works out to a tax on natural gas of $0.82 per million BTU in year 1, increasing by $0.54 per year. For reference, a million BTU now costs about $2 at Henry Hub Louisiana (a historic low). Economic modeling by Columbia University and Rhodium Group suggests this would result in a 40% reduction of CO2 emissions in the first 10 years after enactment of the carbon price.

    We are producing more natural gas in the U.S. than ever in our history, and the trend is upward. That has to change. But the low price means utilities which use natural gas to generate power are being well compensated for their choice. Directly addressing the price advantage of natural gas with a steadily increasing carbon tax will steer energy use towards zero emissions, without the jarring impact and unintended consequences of an outright fracking ban.

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