By: James Conca |
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week that hydraulic fracturing would be banned in New York State, citing the lack of scientific data on public health effects.
The ban was a huge political success for the Governor and for those opposed to fracking. But it’s a reversal of Cuomo’s previous stance in which he embraced fracking as an economic stimulus and a way to reduce carbon emissions when closing old coal plants.
And a 2011 study by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation didn’t show any great issues not faced by most other industrial processes.
I’m a little confused – banning fracking for gas, and banning new pipeline construction to transport it, means more dirty energy from coal and oil during the winter months when gas supplies are insufficient to most of New York and New England (Forbes).
EPA considers emissions from natural gas systems to be fairly low, even compared to agriculture and organic digesters. True, there is a lack of scientific data, which is starting to be addressed. But there is also a lack of data suggesting fracking is as bad as opponents claim. And the main contamination culprit is poorly cemented fracking wells and poor handling of the return water, not the fracked sediments themselves (Forbes; Duke University; Forbes Opinion).
Plus, no one believes data will show fracking for gas to be anywhere near as environmentally destructive as getting coal or oil out of the ground.
I’m not a big fan of gas, or of fracking, but there are two big reasons for America’s historic reduction in carbon emissions over the last six years – the Great Recession and the shale gas fracking craze. U.S. carbon emissions are lower than at any time since 1994.
New York itself has embraced natural gas for its energy future just for this reason as well as for the state’s abundant natural gas reserves (see figure). Gas is the largest supplier of electricity in the state (5,100 GWh), followed by nuclear (3,200 GWh) and hydroelectric (2,000 GWh) and distantly by renewables (500 GWh). Coal is small and will eventually fade completely.
Continued coal plant shutdowns in the northeast region over the coming few years will put even greater pressure on obtaining more natural gas. Yet, gas production in New York State has dropped in half since its peak in 2006 (EIA)
Preventing new natural gas production in the state means either increasing other energy sources or increasing pipeline delivery into the state.
At the same time, another effort is underway to prematurely close down nuclear power plants 20 years or more before they’re ready. Nuclear energy provides a third of the state’s electricity but constitutes 90% of the low-carbon electricity generation in New York State, same as for the rest of the country.
Renewables have been increasing slowly, but can’t even keep up with the loss of coal, so decreasing nuclear at the same time, and cutting gas production, means even more expensive and dirty emergency fossil fuel use during the winter.
The long-term solution is to dramatically increase New York’s small amount of renewables. But more renewables means more gas to load-follow its intermittent production. As much new gas would be needed as the total amount of new renewables.
Energy storage is another way to deal with the intermittency of renewables. But even when large-scale storage becomes possible and widespread in 10 years or so, the process of storing and retrieving energy from these systems is only about 50% efficient. Meaning you lose about half of the energy stored.
The lack of long-term data about the environmental effects of fracking is exactly why there is so much debate and misunderstandings (proposed EPA fracking study). But the little data we have on fracking doesn’t look as bad as we feared.
Last year, EPA cut its estimates of methane emissions from natural gas production by 20 percent, bolstering industry claims that the fuel has a lower carbon footprint than coal and prompting new calls for the agency to soften its 2012 air rules for the sector (EPA).
And it has been found that most leakage out of fracking wells is not through the overlying layers of sediment and rock, but through
- incomplete or poorly cemented boreholes as material comes back up from depth, and
- careless spills of fluid at the surface.
Careful cement jobs and careful surface operations can correct these issues.
So instead of banning fracking, why didn’t New York just enact really strong, and financially punitive, regulations? Most likely because the New York State Legislature lacked the nerve to enact strong measures, and the Governor felt the need to act quickly.
Other sates have acted. Pennsylvania has pursued a regulatory environment that has reduced environmental impacts from fracking. Ohio has also enacted new regulations in their S.B.-315, although some say they must be substantially strengthened (EENews).
So what if we stop fracking and construction of new pipelines? Can’t we adjust the whole system to handle the peaks of winter in the north? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is trying to address this issue by working with generators and regional transmission organizations to try to harmonize this system (Platts). But progress has been slow and there just isn’t enough pipeline capacity in New York and New England.
Some RTOs are instituting changes such as introducing capacity performance products and imposing penalties on generators who cannot secure sufficient fuel supplies during the winter. Of course, this can double or even triple electricity prices during the bad times, and will be passed on to customers.
But if a state refuses to allow new pipeline capacity or regional gas production from fracking, I don’t see how these generators can comply.
Nonetheless, ample supplies of natural gas made possible by fracking are transforming the fuel mix in New York, New England and much of the rest of the nation, making gas the dominant fuel for power generation in the coming decades.
This has been beneficial for consumers because in most wholesale markets electricity prices are set by natural gas prices, which will stay low for several more years. It has also been beneficial for the environment because gas-fired generation produces about half as much CO2 as coal-fired generation, none of the other nasty emissions, and none of the mining issues that coal has (PA DEP emission study).
But the gas boom has created strains on the gas pipeline system, which has not kept pace with the increased production, and it has highlighted the structural disjuncture between the gas and power markets.
More natural gas use. Less carbon emissions. Low costs. How can the State of New York can meet these goals with a fracking ban?