It’s not often that one gets to be a fly on the wall for a conversation between an oil exec and an enviro. The Fortune Brainstorm Green conference hit the ground running with a thought-provoking panel on fracking which pitted Mike Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club against Russ Ford from Shell’sonshore gas exploration division, with wild card Pat Wood III, a Former FERC Regulator, thrown in for extra color.
The panelists did agree on some things: the need for regulation to protect water tables from natural gas leakage, and the inevitability of natural gas as a bridge fuel.
Of course, the devil is in the details and there were plenty of points of discord to keep the audience listening.
How many leaks are there?
Russ Ford from Shell was selective with the language he used to describe the alleged problem of gas leaks associated with fracking, euphemistically referring to leakage as “communication,” as in, “If there’s communication, it’s coming up the side of the casing.” He claimed that incidents like those highlighted in the movie Gasland, where natural gas leaked into local water wells, were isolated incidents. He also suggested that given that there is little regulation of water well drilling, it is entirely possible that fracking has little connection to local water pollution.
Mike Brune from the Sierra Club was most concerned about the lack of information about the number of fracking wells and how frequently they leak into the groundwater surrounding the 5000-6000 foot deep holes. On the issue of Gasland, he said:
“Lots of families had clean water, the fracking industry came in, and now the water is polluted. It may be due to the water wells being badly sited, but we take the families at their word that the problems occurred after the fracking came in rather than that they waited until after natural gas exploration came to town to make their complaints.
If there is leakage of 2.5% or more of methane, gas is worse than coal in terms of effect on cliamate change. No one is tracking the true leakage. We are embarking on massive expansion of this industry without full information. We’re in danger of replacing one source of power, coal, with another, gas. We could be trading one set of problems for another.”
Pat Wood chuckled at that, saying, “There’s more bovine methane than we’re ever going to have to worry about from fracking. There are much more important issues to worry about than methane leakage.”
Russ Ford agreed, for financial as well as environmental reasons: “These are manageable problems. Natural gas is a product we sell, we don’t want methane leaking, that’s lost revenue and it’s also bad for the environment.” From where he sits, the oil industry is doing all that it can to minimize leakage.
Everyone agreed that fracking has a bad rap. Said Pat Wood, “the worst part is the name, it sounds like something my kids aren’t allowed to say. The fierce independent attitude the energy industry takes doesn’t work when you’re dealing with public health.” In other words, the energy industry should do a better job communicating with local communities about the technologies and the risks involved. If people understood the issue better, they would be less fearful of fracking.
Mike Brune disagreed. “Communication is important, but substance is more important. We already have difficulty enforcing existing protective laws, let alone enacting new ones. The oil industry is fighting excise taxes that would help with enforcement. This is not just a communications issue. There is a gap between what the industry could do and what it’s doing.”
Fracking advocates see natural gas as a panacea for national security issues related to energy. Pat Wood even called it a gift from God.
The panelists agreed that natural gas has the potential, as a bridge fuel, to get the US off foreign oil. When accused by an audience member of ignoring this key benefit of natural gas, Mike Brune reminded the audience that climate change is also an issue of national security, and natural gas won’t solve it, especially if the wells are leaking.
Where are we headed?
Mike Brune took the long view on energy issues: “Our goal is to decarbonize as soon as possible while keeping lights on and costs steady. Decommissioning coal should be the first priority. One-third of coal plants have been decommissioned in the last five years and we want to see 90% decommissioned in 20 years. Natural gas should remain constant or decline a bit. That means wind and solar need to increase, and efficiency should increase a lot.”
Did the audience agree?
At the beginning of the conversation, the moderator polled the audience on the following question: should fracking be stopped because of environmental concerns? 21% said yes, 50% said no and 23% were unsure.
At the end of the panel, nearly all the unsure votes became yesses, and no’s declined a few percentage points.