July 8 2013

Walter Russell Mead: A Green Argument for Fracking

Charlotte Hays

The chaos in the Middle East reminds us how important it is for the U.S. to become energy independent.

But here’s the thing about becoming energy independent: it’s possible. It’s not a pipe dream. The new technology associated with fracking has the potential to bring the U.S. closer to the goal of being able to do without oil from the Middle East.

Just one problem: the greenies.

Walter Russell Mead makes the green case for fracking in a must-read piece on The American Interest.

Mead writes:

Ask a green what he or she thinks about fracking, and you’re likely to get an earful of criticism about methane leaks, poisoned groundwater, and climate change disaster. But a new report from the ecologically minded Breakthrough Institute (BI) makes the case that shale gas actually has a net environmental benefit. Nevermind the boosts to our energy security, and economy that fracking provides; the controversial drilling process is worth embracing on green merits alone.

Natural gas’s biggest green qualification is the extent to which it displaces coal as an energy source. Burning coal emits roughly twice as much greenhouse gas into the air as natural gas. Thanks to the shale boom, we’re getting less of our electricity from coal-fired power plants and more from natural gas. The BI notes, “From 2008 to 2012, annual coal consumption for US electric power declined, on average, by 50 million tons.” That’s something greens should be cheering, and it’s mostly thanks to fracking.

Shale also does less harm to the environment than coal. Coal energy requires the hollowing out of mountains and sometimes pollutes streams. Fracking drill pads, by contrast, take up a few hundred square feet. The chemicals from fracking are less toxic and there is less harm to the landscape.

Mead points out that one green concern is that support for fracking would come to the detriment of the solar energy. This rings true to me—but Mead reports that the BI study has an answer. Since gas plants are less expensive to build than coal plants, there is less need to keep them going when other—solar—sources of power are available.

Unfortunately, the greens are not persuaded by this logic:

No matter that shale gas displaces dirty-burning coal; it’s still a fossil fuel, and its emissions aren’t zero. But the world isn’t black and white, and the fact that greens can’t see in shades of gray means that they will continue to be forced to sit out serious energy policy debates. In a perfect world, we would be able to harness the power of the wind and the sun cheaply, consistently, and efficiently, but the technology isn’t there yet. Shale gas is a viable option, and a relatively green one at that.

I think there is something else at stake here. Being green is now a badge of having the “right” ideas, and so it doesn’t do to look at those ideas too carefully. It’s also a class affiliation: being green, as William Tucker has explained, is a sign that one is a modern day aristocrat. Fracking is just so…tacky. It's like for hard hats who want...jobs. I mean--yuck. I be they dress like Larry the Cable Guy.

So for the greens, it’s case closed. And minds closed. 

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