22 Mar

Storified twitter discussion about natural gas between Paolo Bacigalupi, Ramez Naam, me (with additional notes by me)

I briefly wanted to storify this quick blast of a discussion Ramez Naam, Paolo Bacigalupi and I had about natural gas on twitter because it was interesting:

What I didn’t add into twitter were a few things I feel about natural gas over coal. If natural gas adds less carbon than coal, which we’re not entirely sure about due to how much it off gasses, it could be epicly interesting as a bridge technology that reduces carbon and warming.

The US has almost entirely moved away from Coal as the primary ingredient of its electrical grid, and it did it over a rapid 5 year period. Almost none of my green friends realize this. Between the rapidity of the pivot away from coal to natural gas, combined with vehicles like the volt and increased rail, I find we are living in interesting times. And certainly a transitional period.

Is it the right transitional period? We’re trying to figure that out. Methane leaks from natural gas might mean we’re not putting less carbon out.

I was initially alarmed by fracking (earthquakes, stories showing tapwater being lit on fire, etc), but when it started to become clear that a large debate was looming, took a little while to find what I could.

My problem with freaking out about fracking is that everything that people hate about fracking is *already true of coal* and possibly worse.

There is no comparison of a pristine environment and then what it looks like after fracking that is really fair, because what we need to do is compare coal and fracking.

Even if fracking is as horrible as coal in terms of carbon released, the human toll due to coal is easily higher, which swings my feelings. Run off from coal mining *already* destroys more water for communities than fracking stands to. Coal adds more pollutants, more dirty air, particulates, kills more people mining it, and it regularly releases more natural radiation into the communities around it bit by bit slowly than combined existing nuclear accidents have, and keeps adding it every year.

Yes, coal is naturally radioactive.

Coal is nasty shit.

I think, when considered on a blank slate, when ‘perfect’ world and no drilling for any kind of resources vs fracking, yes, fracking is hard. People having fracking move into their neighborhood are loosing the natural environ that existed, but they’re not getting their area ripped apart as hard as an open pit coal would. The death rates of people in a coal community are stunning, and on the whole, higher than nat gas.

As a result, I think it’s a classic ‘lesser of two evils’ situation. But I view the pivot to fracking/nat gas as positive for the US’s future because of these reasons:

a) as far as I can tell, the sum total of fracking’s damage is on the level of coal in the immediate surrounding area at worse case scenario (according to one of the few peer-reviewed articles last year at Duke (http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/dukenvironment/f11/in-the-midst-of-a-fracking-firestorm ) and there are signs that if legislation catches up (as it is beginning to in PA) to the new technology (always a lag) that it can be cleaner in impact with tweaks, whereas we’re 100 years into coal tech and it’s just plain dirty

b) it costs fewer lives, in the US 30 people die in mines each year, and 4,000 new cases of black lung develop every year. Fracking reduces that death rate. What price human life?

c) it demonstrates how fast the industry can change its ‘portfolio’ of energy production on a short notice, thus undermining the dominant narrative that changing to a different kind of energy plant is ‘too hard’ in the event that wind, fusion, or solar technology suddenly tips over into the ‘as cheap per watt’ territory (solar is on a Moore’s Law power curve that indicates this will happen). Right now a lot of alternative energy development is held up by people who say that moving over to a new format would cripple the economy. Well, we just switched to natural gas in five years, pretty much. That argument is bullshit, we can pivot, and we can pivot fast if need be.

d) nat gas quite simply pumps less small physical irritants into the atmosphere as well as less radiation. The EDF estimates about 10,000 deaths a year are directly related to coal pollutants, cutting coal fired plants by 2/3s has a direct and meaningful impact on 7,000 lives a year, birth defects, asthma, lowers mercury in the cycle of life, etc etc. It will also pump less radiation out into the air.

So let’s save those 10K deaths a year, learn how to frack better, and invest in solar and wind and battery technology like our lives depend on it. We need to test and regulate the fracking. We need to know what the material that fracking is using is and monitor wells extremely carefully.

Fracking is a bridge energy source. It might not be perfect, but I think the coal mining deaths, black lung, reduced asthma, birth defects, cancer, and released radiation into the atmosphere that coal brings with it are all worth getting rid of all on their own.

Coal is nasty. There is a nasty choice in that if you stop the fracking, then we chose coal, because solar and wind just aren’t there yet (they’re coming).

So the lesser of two evils. And coal is pretty damn evil…