Fracking, Obama and the 2012 Debate

Future Hope column, Feb. 20, 2012

By Ted Glick

“This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy. . . that develops every available source of American energy. . . We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years. . . The development of natural gas will . . . prov(e) that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy. . . And by the way, it was public research dollars. . . that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock – reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground. “
-Barack Obama, January 25 State of the Union speech

Obama said more than this about energy in his State of the Union speech almost a month ago. He talked about the near-doubling of renewable energy in the three years of his presidency and plans to develop “clean energy” on public lands. He stated that he “will not cede” the wind, solar or advanced battery industries to China or Germany. He supported programs to reduce energy waste in buildings. And he used the words “climate change” once, which was one more time than he used it in his 2011 SOTU speech.

But the most striking new idea in the area of energy was his full-throated defense of fracked natural gas as both an example of the important role of government research and the fuel that we can depend on to meet our energy needs for “nearly one hundred years.”

This was a very, very bad development. And it is, accordingly, incumbent upon the climate movement and the progressive movement generally to take up this challenge in this important election year. There must be a loud, popular outcry this year against fracking, as well as all of the other extreme energy extraction methods and fuels: mountaintop removal coal, deep water offshore and Arctic Ocean oil/gas drilling and tar sands oil.

President Obama says that fracked natural gas allows us to essentially chill out. Because of it, “we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”

What a disappointing, inaccurate and alarming statement.

It’s as if the around-a-thousand–so far–documented cases of water poisoning from fracking are caused by one or two “bad apple” companies in the gas industry that can be easily made to see the error of their ways. No, no no!

It’s as if the impact of thousands of heavy truck trips per well, or the huge amounts of water used and mixed with dangerous chemicals to produce contaminated waste water in the process of extracting gas from shale, are easily fixed—not!

And it’s as if the process of drilling for, extracting, processing, transporting, storing, distributing and burning fracked, as well as conventionally-produced, natural gas is not an environmental hazard, a major contributor to the dangerous heating up of the earth.

Over the past two years, a number of studies have produced evidence that, indeed, natural gas is just this:

In 2010, and again in 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency updated its estimates of greenhouse gas leaks from the oil and gas industry. For the gas industry, they increased their estimate of methane leaks by an astounding 156% compared to their previously estimated figures. And bear in mind that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is at least 72, more likely 105, times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere.

In April of last year Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell University published a groundbreaking analysis which estimated that between 3.6% and 7.9% of the methane from natural gas produced via fracking is leaked into the atmosphere over the entire life cycle of the gas, from production to burning. This compares to a life cycle estimate for conventional gas development of between 1.7% and 6%. Howarth and his team used this information to project that, over a 20 year period of time, “the greenhouse gas footprint for shale gas is at least 20% greater than and perhaps more than twice as great as that for coal.”

In October of last year an analysis by Nathan Hultman and others from the University of Maryland projected, despite critical commentary about Howarth/Santoro/Ingraffea’s study, that over a 20 year period the “greenhouse gas footprint of electricity from unconventional gas [fracking], relative to that of coal,” is between approximately 97% and 119%.

And just two weeks ago, in a February 7th article in Scientific American, “Air Sampling Reveals High Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Field,” it was reported that research done in Colorado backed up the conclusions of Howarth and the others at Cornell: “Led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder, the study estimates that natural-gas producers in an area known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere–not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system. This is more than double the official inventory, but roughly in line with estimates made in 2011 that have been challenged by industry.”

As President Obama said, it is true that “we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy,” but that’s not because natural gas in shale is a clean fuel. Natural gas is a dirty fossil fuel that, new studies are showing, is probably worse than coal when it comes to its heating-up impact on our atmosphere, especially in the next 20 years, the time period when we absolutely must, on a worldwide basis, leave fossil fuels behind as our primary energy sources.

“We don’t have to choose” because when we get serious about prioritizing conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy primarily from the sun, wind and earth (geothermal), this will be a tremendous driver of economic development while being good for our seriously damaged natural environment.

We don’t need an “all-out, all-of-the-above” energy strategy. We need an “all-out, reduce-fossil-fuels-and-onto-efficiency-and-renewables” energy strategy.

It’s kind-of like what Presidential candidate Obama said on February 4th, 2008 in Newsweek: “We will have a bold energy agenda that drastically reduces our emission of greenhouse gases while creating a green engine that can drive growth for many years to come.”

The earth has been hard hit in the four years since February, 2008 by weather disaster after weather disaster clearly related to our disrupted climate. And yet we are facing the prospect of a debate in 2012 between the two major party candidates over energy policy in which little is said about this deepening crisis or the genuinely clean energy solutions to it.

It is up to the climate movement and the movements against extreme energy extraction to speak up and take action loudly and clearly to force those who want to lead us to respond. Let’s shape the debate!

Ted Glick has been building the climate movement since 2004 and has been an activist and organizer for progressive change since 1968. Past writings and more information can be found at, and he can be followed on Twitter at