Something good is happening in the United States. All of a sudden, energy is getting much cheaper and cleaner. Dirty old coal-fired plants are shutting down because they no longer make economic sense. In fact, the U.S. appears to be the only major emitter that's actually reducing emissions. Since 2006, U.S. emissions have fallen by 7.7 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency – despite the absence of a global carbon treaty, or stiff new regulations, or a cap-and-trade regime. To be sure, the recession helped. But even when the economy comes back, greenhouse-gas emissions are set to fall even more.
You'd think that environmental groups would rejoice at this great news. Instead, they've gone to war. The main reason for the fall in greenhouse gasses is a new technology known as hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), which they claim is a menace to the planet. Fracking promises to unlock vast new reserves of shale gas, which emits roughly half as much CO2 as coal, and 30 per cent less than conventional oil. But environmentalists warn that fracking will poison the water, pollute the air and trigger earthquakes that will bring doom and destruction raining down on us all.
The fracking wars have broken out here, too. In Quebec, where opposition is most intense, fracking has been banned pending further studies. In New Brunswick, protest groups have marched on the legislature. Thomas Mulcair, the NDP Leader, hates fracking as intensely as he hates the oil sands. This week he accused the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers of “pulling a con job” because it says that fracking is safe.
To the chagrin of environmentalists, fracking's biggest cheerleader is Barack Obama. He may have stopped the Keystone XL pipeline, but shale-gas development has replaced green energy as the heart of his energy policy. It's easy to see why. This is rocket fuel for the economy. New gas and oil extraction is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, many of them in depressed states such as Pennsylvania. Cheap, abundant energy is revitalizing manufacturing. It's also great news for consumers, who can look forward to lower hydro and heating bills. Best of all, the U.S. will become less dependent on nasty authoritarian petro-states.
Since the turn of the century, shale gas has risen from 2 per cent to 23 per cent of U.S. energy production, according to energy expert Daniel Yergin. “I think we're just beginning to see the economic impact of it,” he says. He describes hydraulic fracturing – a process that uses chemicals, water and sand to drill through shale rock and release trapped gasses – as a breakthrough innovation that will transform the energy landscape. Fracking could unlock a 100-year supply of natural gas, as well as new supplies of oil from such unlikely spots as North Dakota. North Dakota is now producing more oil than Alaska. The only state that produces more oil is Texas.
So what's not to like? All new technologies have problems, and fracking is no exception. Some things have gone wrong, and no doubt other things will too. Mr. Mulcair warned about the “carcinogenic” chemicals used in fracking, which might get into the water supply. Mr. Yergin says this is highly unlikely, because the drilling occurs so far underground. A bigger problem, he says, is what to do with the huge amounts of waste water from the drilling. As for earthquakes, we can probably relax. Although fracking can cause micro-earthquakes, they're usually too small to detect.
I'm no expert on fracking technology, and I'm in no position to evaluate the risks. I have to rely on experts for that. The real issue is whether the risks can be managed, and whether the public thinks the risks are worth the rewards. European countries such as France and Bulgaria have decided not. But we'll have to power up our iPads somehow. Our energy needs are forecast to grow by another 15-20 per cent over the next few years. And it seems to me that tapping into a supply of cleaner, greener, abundant and reliable energy is a no-brainer.
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