By Mark Perry.
"Last year, emissions from the electric power sector fell to the lowest level in nearly 30 years. At the current pace of reductions, within the next five years, carbon emissions from U.S. power plants will fall to levels last seen during the 1970s even though electric power production will have doubled over that period. How much further will carbon emissions from U.S. power plants have to fall to calm the environmental doomsayers?
Thanks to the use of innovative technologies in the production of natural gas, there is nothing opponents of shale production – whether intentionally or not – can do to impede the reduction in carbon emissions. No technology has done more in the past decade to help the U.S. reduce emissions than hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Used in tandem with horizontal drilling, fracking has unlocked a bonanza of natural gas that is reshaping the U.S. electricity mix and helping cut emissions faster than experts predicted.
New natural gas plants are being built by the dozens, old coal plants are going into retirement or are being converted to burn natural gas. And this low-cost gas is making it easier to integrate renewable power onto the grid.
Natural gas plants can throttle their power production up and down remarkably quickly. Natural gas is a cheap, and critically important, counterpart to wind and solar power, which still needs backup power to ensure grid reliability when the weather isn't cooperating.
And just as the public tends to overlook fracking when thinking of clean energy, there is also a failure to recognize that technological advances driving the shale industry forward are keeping pace with the equally remarkable progress in solar and wind technologies.
The time it takes to drill a shale well has been cut in half over the last decade. The cost of new wells continues to fall while the productivity of new wells keeps growing. Drilling rigs keep getting bigger, more powerful and increasingly automated. Petroleum engineers working from a nearby office building can "geosteer" their drills 15,000 feet below the surface with amazing accuracy and hit a shale resource target the size of a basketball. Big data is completely revolutionizing natural gas production, just as it has done in the automobile and aviation industries.
Yet there are those who want to thwart shale gas production, claiming it poses a danger to groundwater systems. So although the Environmental Protection Agency during President Barack Obama's administration said that fracking is safe, some environmentalists say we have a moral obligation to foster the use of renewables. They want states to follow New York's lead in prohibiting all fracking.
Why would any well-intentioned person want to call the value of clean-burning gas into question? And hasn't an abundance of U.S.-produced gas had some important geopolitical ramifications, providing Europe with an alternative to Russian gas and reducing the threat of energy blackmail? You may think that at least some world leaders are staying away from the debate over fracking. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is on record as trying to stir up environmental opposition to fracking in Europe and claiming U.S. fracking is an affront to Russian expansionism.
The U.S. shale boom will continue to benefit consumers if energy markets are allowed to work.
Of course, environmentalists are quick to accuse the oil and gas industry of vile motives. From their point of view, the shale revolution isn't really an example of technological innovation that has changed the energy calculus; it's a matter of morality: Increasing the production of a fossil fuel is evil.
We can hope that a majority of shale opponents see the folly of these arguments. Natural gas has less than half the carbon content of coal, air quality has improved and gas is low cost. Make no mistake – switching from coal to gas will continue regardless of President Donald Trump's administration's efforts to save the coal industry and Putin's efforts to discredit fracking.
Meanwhile, against the background of callousness and international intrigue, useful things are getting done. The U.S. is sitting on vast reserves of cheap natural gas – a fact that has generated tens of thousands of jobs, strengthened the nation's economy and created nightmares for Putin. Above all, the energy market and private sector innovation are leading the way. It's time to put an end to the debate over fracking and recognize what is already obvious: Lower-emission technologies are here to stay. There's no putting the innovation genie back into the bottle. And we should embrace the role that low-carbon shale gas, abundant and reliable, will continue to play as a very important part of America's energy future."