Why every serious environmentalist should favour fracking

Air pollution is a far more pressing problem – particularly for emerging economies such as China and India – than the challenges posed by greenhouse warming.

A deadly pollution known as PM2.5 is currently killing over three million people each year, primarily in the developing world, demonstrates Richard Muller (Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley since 1980) in Why Every Serious Environmentalist should favour Fracking.  His co-author, Elizabeth Muller, is his daughter and co-founder (with him) of Berkeley Earth, a non-profit working on environmental issues.

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As such, air pollution is currently harming far more people than the more distant challenge of global warming – particularly for emerging economies such as China and India. They state:

“The Health Effects Institute estimated that air pollution in 2010 led to 3.2 million deaths that year [across the world], including 1.2 million in China and 620,000 in India. And the pollution is getting worse as global use of coal continues to grow…

The Mullers argues that both global warming and air pollution can be mitigated by the responsible development and utilisation of shale gas:

“China not only has the greatest yearly death toll from air pollution, but is also key for mitigating global warming. China surpassed the US in CO2 production in 2006; growth was so rapid that by late 2013, China’s CO2 emissions are nearly twice those of the US. If its growth continues at this rate (and China has averaged 10% GDP growth per year for the past 20 years) China will be producing more CO2 per person than the US by 2023. If the US were to disappear tomorrow, Chinese growth alone would bring worldwide emissions back to the same level in four years. To mitigate global warming, it is essential to slow worldwide emissions, not just those in the developed countries. And we feel this must be done without slowing the economic growth of the emerging world…”

“It is believed that China has enormous reserves of shale gas, perhaps 50% larger than those of the US. If that shale gas can be utilised, it offers China a wonderful opportunity to mitigate air pollution while still allowing energy growth… Industry experts believe that the cubic metres of gas recovered from a given well can be doubled in the near future by better design of the fracking stages to match geologic formation characteristics. And they also believe that number could double again in the next decade. Soon that will mean four times the production for only a minor increase in cost. Such an advance is expected to turn currently difficult fields into major producers, to open up fields in China, Europe, and the US that are currently unprofitable.”

The authors consider some of the concerns raised by opponents of fracking; and conclude that they are either largely false or can be addressed by appropriate regulation.

Developed economies should therefore help emerging economies switch from coal to natural gas; and shale gas technology should be advanced as rapidly as possible and shared freely.

And China and Europe are well placed to take advantage of fracking. The high price paid in China and Europe for imported natural gas, typically US$10 per million BTU (compared to the US$3.50 in the US) means that the cost of shale drilling and completion can be much higher and still be profitable.

The Mullers conclude that environmentalists should recognise the shale gas revolution as beneficial to society – and lend their full support to helping it advance.

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Richard A. Muller, Elizabeth A. Muller - Friday, 6th December, 2013