Why fracking is splitting environmental groups apart

Few things inspire bitter disagreement among green groups and climate advocates quite like the question of how to deal with fracking. It’s one of the more important debates within environmentalism today.

To break it down very roughly: The pro-fracking side points out that the US natural-gas boom, driven by hydraulic fracturing, has been one of the big environmental success stories of the past decade. Electric utilities are now using more cheap gas and less dirty coal to generate power. Since gas burns more cleanly, that reduces air pollution: US carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 10 percent since 2005.

On the “anti” side are a large and growing number of environmental groups who now argue that the problems with fracking seem to outweigh the benefits. It’s not just the air and water pollution caused by fracking. They also point out that there’s methane leaking out of all those gas wells and pipelines. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and depending on how big those leaks are, that could offset the climate benefits of lower CO2 emissions. Just as significantly, anti-fracking groups also note that natural gas is still a fossil fuel and still produces carbon dioxide when burned.

The overarching problem here is that no one knows how much methane is actually leaking out of natural gas infrastructure. It might be a lot — in which case natural gas could conceivably be worse for global warming than coal is.

Some are trying to answer the questions…


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