New Shale Gas Study Ignores Crucial Downsides

Posted By Lowell F. on January 16th, 2012

MIT News informs us of a new study, The Influence of Shale Gas on U.S. Energy and Environmental Policy, which optimistically concludes that “though the shale [gas] future is uncertain, these concerns are overstated.” However, there are a few problems with this study you might want to be aware of.

First, and perhaps most problematic, the study dismisses the significant risk to U.S. water supplies due to dangerous chemicals used during the natural gas “fracking” process with essentially no discussion whatsoever.  In fact, the study only mentions the word “water” twice, in passing, with a dismissive comment, in the passive voice no less, that “continuing concern is expressed about water pollution in the development process.” In addition, the report claims that costs to deal with the risks posed by “fracking” to water supplies “will not have a very significant impact on the economic attractiveness of the shale resource.”  Apparently, according to this report, all the concern out there among scientists and the general public has been misplaced.  Of course, how exactly this study’s authors know exactly what’s  happening 7,000 feet under the ground is never explained. Perhaps because the gas companies don’t know, and mostly don’t care?

Second, let’s not forget that the natural gas industry has every incentive to keep information about the chemicals it uses, the risks to water supplies,  and other potentially significant issues related to “fracking” as quiet as possible. That includes underwriting anti-clean-energy propaganda from the likes of Robert Bryce, as well as deflecting and dodging questions about the costs it is inflicting on the country. This study does not address any of that.

Third, in any consideration of the cost of fossil fuels, we should take into account the fact that those fuels – including natural gas - continue to be heavily underwritten through extensive and highly unpopular government handouts, as well as billions of dollars worth of assistance over many years by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and other government agencies. Again, this study does not address any of those things.

Finally, with regard to this study’s conclusion that (artificially) cheap natural gas will slow the growth of wind, solar, and other renewables, what the study fails to mention is that renewable energy offers long-term benefits that no fossil fuel can provide  in terms of the environment. The study also fails to mention that renewable energy costs continue to come down rapidly, with solar already approaching grid parity in the United States, and wind well on its way as well.

The bottom line of all this? If we’re going to look seriously at how shale gas is affecting U.S. energy policy and the environment, we’re going to need to look not only at its upsides but also at its many downsides, both actual and potential. This study, as we’ve explained, does not do that, thus biasing the results heavily in favor of shale gas.

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