Can Fracking be Considered Renewable Energy?

That familiar blue flame: renewable or no? | Photo: Derrick Coetzee/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Every once in a while a news item comes along in which someone points to natural gas as the gateway to our renewable energy future. This week, for example, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat said of a new 300-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Lodi, "The new plant... will help play backup to renewable sources of electricity, such as wind and solar power, that can be affected by weather."

It's not just power generation in which gas gets a green gloss: Compressed Natural Gas is a widely used "alternative" fuel in California vehicles. And many solar power plants use natural gas as a backup fuel, generating up to a quarter of their output by burning gas. But can natural gas, made extremely inexpensive these days by the process of hydraulic fracturing, really be considered "renewable"?

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The easy answer is "no." Natural gas as produced from wells, fracked or otherwise, is a fossil fuel. Burning it adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that wasn't there before. And the process of fracking adds another dimension to the non-renewablility of the end product: if you destroy groundwater and other aspects of the landscape in order to get your fuel, then you probably shouldn't call that fuel renewable even if it's completely carbon-free.

KCET's "SoCal Connected" learned this year that hydraulic fracturing of gas-bearing shale deposits -- the process the natural gas industry wishes we would stop calling "fracking" -- has been going on in California for some time, all but unregulated. A bill is making its way through the state legislature would enact a moratorium on fracking in California until the state government decides how it's going to regulate the practice.

In the meantime, though, and despite growing opposition to the practice, the practice of fracking has spread widely throughout the industry. Breaking up gas-bearing shale with pressurized fluids allows cheaper extraction of more gas from the ground, and so as the practice spread over the last decade production boomed and the price of natural gas crashed. As a result, natural gas is poised to surpass coal as the U.S.'s leading source of electrical power this year. It may have done so already.

That's the upside of the natural gas boom: it's a way cleaner source of power than coal. It's cleaner-burning, meaning fewer toxic pollutants come out of a gas turbine's stacks than its coal-fired cousins. Most of natural gas is methane, whose molecule -- CH4 -- contains a carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms. A significant portion of the energy we get from burning natural gas thus comes from the gas's constituent hydrogen combining with oxygen, a process which contributes no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Burning natural gas is thus a lot less damaging to the climate than burning coal, at least if you count only carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour of power produced.

In fact, there are a few people generally considered to be within the environmentalist camp who fiercely defend fracking as a necessary measure to get off climate-killing coal. Renowned atmospheric scientist James Lovelock is one of them: he told the Guardian this summer;

"Gas is almost a give-away in the US at the moment. They've gone for fracking in a big way. Let's be pragmatic and sensible and get Britain to switch everything to methane. We should be going mad on it."

If you ignore the fracking issue, there's a certain logical allure to promoting natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to get us off coal. Moving to gas from coal would cut our carbon emissions dramatically, and without needing to wait for new developments in technology. That's a risky position for enviros to take, however, given the burgeoning body of evidence that fracking is not nearly as environmentally benign as its "fracktitioners" claim, with mounting data tying the practice to polluted groundwater, flammable tap water, foundations cracking as the rock layers move beneath buildings, and that kind of thing.

Fracking can also erode other kinds of foundations, as the Sierra Club learned this year when a Time Magazine blogger revealed the Club had accepted $26 million in donations from the gas company Chesapeake Energy to support the Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign. Former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope accepted the donations while touting natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to get off coal, a conflict of interest that eroded the foundation of trust many anti-fracking activists had placed in the Club. Pope has since left the Club, which stopped taking money from Chesapeake soon after the story broke.

There are even cases in which renewables are seen by some as a cleaner-burning smokescreen for increased gas use. The best example is likely the Sunrise Powerlink, the $2 billion transmission line running from the Yuha Desert to San Diego, sold to regulators and ratepayers as a crucial link to bring solar and wind power from the desert to the coast, but which many critics allege is actually intended to conduct power from its owner Sempra Energy's giant gas-fired plants in Mexicali, fueled by Liquefied Natural Gas imported to North America via Sempra's Costa Azul terminal in Ensenada. Sempra denies the allegations, but held out for licensing provisions that would allow hooking up the Powerlink to the Mexicali plants.

So, as Renewable Energy and Natural Gas might say of their relationship if they had Facebook accounts, It's Complicated. Natural gas is a clear winner over coal in both extraction and use -- even the most die-hard opponents of fracking would be hard-pressed to say it's worse than coal mining. But implying that gas is clean just because it's cleaner than coal is probably beside the point.

And if we're taking it out of the ground faster than the global ecosystem is replacing it, then it just plain isn't renewable by any definition. Even if it's abundant and cheap. After all, oil used to be abundant and cheap, too.

The line between gas and true renewables may not be all that blurry for long. Even abundant commodities can go through market fluctuations. Analysts expect frequent spikes and plunges in the price of gas in months to come. Meanwhile, the sun will keep shining for free, the wind will keep blowing regardless of demand, and steam will keep coming out of the ground whether stockholders are nervous or happy. That's not a bad thumbnail definition of "renewable" -- the energy source is there regardless of spot markets. And by that measure, gas fails miserably.

It may be a sensible interim fuel as we get off coal. But implying that natural gas has a place in the broad category of renewables is misleading.

ReWire is dedicated to covering renewable energy in California. Keep in touch by liking us on Facebook, and help shape our editorial direction by taking this quick survey here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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