Fracktivists for Global Warming

How Celebrity NIMBYism Turned Environmentalism Against Natural Gas

{photo_credit}

Mainstream environmental groups used to support natural gas, which offers significant public health and climate benefits over coal and is a "bridge fuel" to a clean energy future. But celebrity activists like Mark Ruffalo (right), who has a house in the Catskills, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (left) have led the movement astray with NIMBY opposition to fracking in areas such as upstate New York.

March 06, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Over the last year, celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Mario Batali, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon have spoken out against the expansion of natural gas drilling. “Fracking kills,” says Ono, who has a country home in New York. “It threatens the air we breathe,” says Redford. 

In fact, “gas provides a very substantial health benefit in reducing air pollution,” according to Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. There have been “tremendous health gains” from the coal-to-gas switch, MIT economist Michael Greenstone told The Associated Press. Indeed, air pollution in Pennsylvania has plummeted in recent years thanks to the coal-to-gas switch. "Honestly," added Greenstone, "the environmentalists need to hear it."

Fracktivism might be dismissed as so much celebrity self-involvement had it not reversed the national environmental movement's longstanding support of natural gas as a bridge to zero-carbon energy — and kept shale drilling out of New York state. Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo was set to green-light 40 demonstration gas wells in a depressed part of New York until Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Bobby Kennedy Jr. called him and asked him not to.

Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org have made common cause with the anti-fracking movement, as has the Sierra Club. NRDC went from being supportive of a coal-to-gas switch to opposing the expansion of gas production. Even the Environmental Defense Fund’s chief, Fred Krupp, said in a debate last month that he opposes the expansion of natural gas.

All of this comes at a time when carbon emissions are declining in the US more than in any other country in the world. The USA is the global climate leader, while Europe and Germany are returning to coal. The main reason is gas, which increased last year by almost the exact same amount that coal declined

Just a few years ago, environmental leaders were saying that we faced a climate emergency, that emissions must start declining rapidly, and that enemy number one was coal. Now the same leaders are saying we have to stop shale fracking even though it is crushing coal and driving down American carbon emissions.

Of course, the fractivism isn't really about the fracking. Matt Damon's anti-natural gas movie was originally an attack on wind farms. In 2005, Bobby Kennedy Jr. helped lead a campaign to stop the Cape Wind farm from being built because it will be visible from the Kennedy compound. Meanwhile, he was championing the construction of a massive solar farm in the Mojave Desert, 3,000 miles away — itself opposed by local environmentalists.

Fracktivists like Mark Ruffalo protest that his NIMBYism isn't pro-coal. He told AP that we don’t need natural gas; we can easily switch from coal directly to solar panels, like the ones Ruffalo installed on his Catskills house. 

But when the sun isn’t shining on Ruffalo’s roof, he’s mostly getting his electricity from natural gas. In order to accommodate the intermittent nature of solar and wind, utilities rely on natural gas plants, which can be quickly ramped up and down to keep the lights on. Contra Gasland’s Josh Fox's claims about using "compressed air" in a recent debate with Ted at Salon.com — cheap, utility-scale energy storage simply doesn't exist.

Privately, scientists and analysts within national environmental organizations are appalled that celebrity fractivism could get in the way of the coal-to-gas shift. They say the fracktivists undermine green credibility, and are disturbed by the failure of their movement’s leadership. 

But there’s little reason to expect national green leaders will become, well, leaders. They will likely continue to follow donors who demonstrate time and again that what matters most to them — whether in the case of a nuclear plant in Long Island, a wind farm in Cape Cod, or a gas well in the Catskills — is the view from their solar-plated eco-compounds, not the potentially catastrophic impact of global warming on the planet.


Further Reading

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "EDF: Lock In Soft Energy, Not Coal-Killing Gas," The Breakthrough, March 15, 2013

James Conca, "Deadly Air Pollution Declines Thanks to Gas Boom," The Breakthrough, March 4, 2013

Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Alex Trembath, and Max Luke, "Debunking Rhodium," The Breakthrough, February 28, 2013


Comments

  • Finally somebody said it. Thank you.

    By Susan Riggio on 2013 03 06

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • The “fractivists” are concerned about water.  Fracking withdraws a lot of water and pollutes it, and we are in a drought.  So greedy slobs get no love—is that wrong?  These sincere and informed celebrities you sneer at are not just more pea princess NIMBYites who stand in the way of progress on climate change, but defenders of the water supply.  The fracking industry that you so stoutly defend may disappoint you soon.  See http://www.powermag.com/gas/gas_power_direct/Why-We-Need-to-Be-Cautious-in-the-Shift-to-Gas_5413.html

    By Wilmot McCutchen on 2013 03 06

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • For a full sense of NRDC’s actual position on natural gas, please see this Congressional testimony from NRDC President Frances Beinecke: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/fbeinecke-13021101.asp

    By Jenny Powers, NRDC on 2013 03 06

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • The article referenced in the comment above makes no mention of ecological threats from hydrofracking.  It is a discussion of the volatility of gas prices, a very valid concern for power generators, but not particularly relevant to environmental discussions.

    There is more to the natural gas discussion than simply whether hydrofracking is good or bad.  As someone who lives in the Marcellus Shale in New York I am very concerned about specific drilling techniques and protection of the water, but I am very pro natural gas.  I believe the risks are manageable through regulatory oversight and maintaining high standards for drillers.

    Natural gas is the only immediate option we have to replace coal and petroleum.  We can drive the cars we already own on natural gas, as well as ships, trucks, planes, or anything with a combustion engine.  And with improved performance since natural gas is 130 octane and has emissions that are clean enough for your kitchen.  We need domestic natural gas if we hope to end our wars for oil.

    Secondly, natural gas is primarily methane and methane is renewable.  We can make methane in vast quantities from biomass, algae, sewage and garbage.  In addition there are enormous methane hydrate deposits on the seafloor.  We will never run out of methane and do not need to fight wars to acquire it.

    By Ed Dodge on 2013 03 06

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • Thank you—Finally, someone is speaking the truth on these issues.

    And of course it goes much deeper.  The off-grid solar arrays that are so beloved of the deep greens are an environmental nightmare, due to the need for battery storage. Within a few years, the batteries must be replaced, and hence more lead and acid must be introduced. (I know this well, as I have an off-grid solar array—the first thing the solar installer told me was “never forget: batteries are EVIL”) ). And think of the environmental lawsuits that solar-cell manufacturers would face if they were to make all of the arrays necessary for a substantial shift to solar power in the US.

    In the end, conventional green activists, of one variety or another, will oppose every initiative necessary to transition to a lower carbon future. Mainstream environmentalism has become anti-environmentalism, but somehow it has managed to fool just about everyone but you.

    By Martin Lewis on 2013 03 06

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • Although I agree that natural gas is a better alternative to coal - fracking is not without its issues. Stronger regulations, tougher liability laws and transparency to the public will not only help protect citizens but it will also help combat the extreme idealism of “fracktivists”.

    As for NY state - - the economic benefits reaped by PA would not occur in NY and to suggest as much is wrong. Natural gas today is incredibly cheap. PA as an early adopter reaped great benefits from fracking. It is important to consider that NY wouldn’t.

    Hating on “environmentalists” isn’t helpful and I think your message would come across stronger if you appreciated what it is they do provide. Radicals are necessary - - they shine a light on problems. Fracking is dirty business and becuase these companies have too much lobbying influence they aren’t being held accountable. As pragmatists, realists, holistic problem solvers, we need to appreciate those out there raising public interst and public concern. It is with that support that real change can happen.

    By Pamela Quinlan on 2013 03 06

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • [First submitted 3/6/13; resubmitted 3/7/13]

    No problem, that toxic emissions from burning natural gas are magnitudes less than from coal. Can we set that debate aside?

    No problem that natural gas has half the CO2 emission of coal. Can we set that one aside too?

    Now look at where natural gas comes from, before it is a finished product, ready to be burned. If it is unconventional gas, it has a bigger opportunity to leak (methane) all along the way: from extraction, to processing to transporting. Methane is a gas that, in the near-term, is 20x more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

    Now, add 3 - 9% “fugitive gas” emissions to the CO2 produced at end-use, and you’ve got something to make you go, “mmm” about greenhouse gas contributions. It’s a lot like our dilemma over nuclear power—relatively clean, except for processing and waste disposal.

    What we really need from industry is more transparency and honesty in addressing the issues. As it looks now, we have run-away natural gas production that’s a lot due to the more profitable pursuit of oil. Oil is the profit center of the fuel industry. Natural gas is like a side-benefit of unconventional oil extraction. That’s why there’s such a glut on the market of natural gas. That’s why industry needs to export natural gas. That’s how big business makes the most money, cloaked in the mantle of doing the environment good.

    Cheap gas or oil drives us to use it up all the quicker, without a care for what we might be doing differently. Technology rules! And right now, natural gas is cheap, very cheap.

    By Lee James on 2013 03 07

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • What a sad and twisted approach to “environmentalism” Shellenberger and Nordhaus have taken—- to attack those who want clean, carcinogen-free water to be the priority, rather than to investigate international corporations that have unlimited - UNLIMITED - ability to manipulate information via their lobbyists, their PR machines, and their own financial involvements with our sad excuse for “public information” in the Mass Media.  And the group that suffers and is ignored is always the same: it is the poor and the working-middle-classes of America… a diverse group, Republicans and Democrats - probably making up more than 65-percent of citizens - always desiring education and political power, lucky to even at least have celebrities care if they live or die, but instead having to settle for self-appointed pro-corporate “representatives” like Shellenberger and Nordhaus, men of unknown backgrounds and motives.

    I speak to you now, our well-financed, self-appointed representatives——do you know what it is like to have your air and water quality threatened every day by corporations, and to have no re-course whatsoever because you need to use all of your time to simply pay the rent and feed your children?  Have you ever known what it is like to not even be able to afford to move to another location or go to a doctor? Do you know what it is like to have elected and appointed “representatives” who almost always favor the rich and never good, decent, honest working-people who actually are “gullible” enough to think that the Ten Commandments are sensible rules to live by?  Do you know what it is like for us to then be blamed for these problems, when it is almost always the so-called “moral” rich who ultimately make all of the decisions about our science, our industry, our social institutions, our culture, and our welfare?

    Have you ever even MET or KNOWN a working-class American, even for a minute?? Do you even KNOW that they are almost ALWAYS the ones who are SACRIFICED by a government or corporate decision???

    Frankly, the arrogance and “spin” you use to attack those who actually care reminds me very much - very much - of the propaganda used by Cape Wind, where it was declared that “only the wealthy liberals” were the ones who did not want turn-of-the-century-telephone-pole-like array of huge, ugly windmills placed in front of the beaches where working people go to FORGET their victimization by the rich—not to have it shoved in their faces.

    By Don Faxon on 2013 03 07

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • I live in Brazil, and comments by Don Faxon are humane, perhaps not totally correct in a scientific approach, by it´s very warm, glad for read. I understand him very well.  Same kind of feelings all around here.  In the most of his text, he´s absolutely right.  Congratulations, Dan, you´re a good guy.

    By Davi Damiao on 2013 03 08

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • I oppose fracking, and i am well aware that burning methane is cleaner than burning coal and produces less carbon emissions per unit of energy. I am one of the supposed idiots that you’re characterizing.

    I take a wider view. We need to reduce our fossil energy usage, and phase it out. I advocate a serious carbon tax starting at $20/ton this year, and rising substantially every year, returning the dividend to the people. It must have border adjustments / harmonization to encourage other countries to pass similar carbon taxes. It would work, if not blocked by the strong-arming and well-heeled fossil energy lobby.

    I oppose fracking because of the ecological harm to the land and people. Look at northern Pennsylvania, southwestern North Dakota, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming where hydraulic fracking is widespread.

    If you talk to many residents of fracking areas, some will be all for it, for the jobs and the lease payments. Others are strongly against it, seeing the effects on their crops, livestock, and personal health. It has serious effects. It ruins land for short-term gain, pocketed mainly by the gas companies, with a little bribe money to the people employed at temporary lucrative jobs.

    We need to face the main problem, our addiction to fossil energy, and transition to clean energy and conservation. We can do it, if we have the will. Please refrain from painting serious and thoughtful people with a broad brush. We are not stupid. We understand the facts you’re presenting, and still disagree with you fundamentally, for larger reasons.

    By SageRad on 2013 03 13

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • This pick-up of the term NIMBYism is very revealing for how it reflects total contempt for local self-determination. Do you know what it feels like to live near fracked wells? To have your property values decline, children’s safety threatened by road-ripping truck traffic, companies like Range Resources bragging about using “PsyOps” tactics refined in Iraq against average citizens?

    The assumption that gas is better than coal for the climate is a canard, and you should know better. Nature published a widely-reported article that reported on NOAA field studies which relay an “eye-popping” 9% methane leakage of methane.

    http://www.nature.com/news/methane-leaks-erode-green-credentials-of-natural-gas-1.12123

    Industry leakage rates (which claim gas reduces global warming by 50%) don’t incorporate this information at the front-end, and so, because gas does burn cleaner at the power plant, people like you take their word for it.

    Even if the industry’s comparisons were right, most current comparisons (EPA and IPCC) of gas (methane) to CO2 (biggest concern with coal)  compare the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane—i.e. damage to the climate—to CO2 based on a 100-year timeline.

    Check your science—methane’s effects on the climate are concentrated in the first 20 years. Over 70% by most estimates. If you compare the GWP of methane to CO2 over the next 20 years, a period where it’s clear to honest scientists that we risk crossing a “tipping point” into irreversible climate change, it’s likely that methane is worse than coal. 

    If you think EPA’s regulations on fracking emissions (expected to be introduced soon) will solve that (after years of delay)—think again. Not only do they expect to exempt exploratory and other wells and not addressing already fracked and capped wells (which can still leak)—it’s all dependant on state enforcement (since EPA doesn’t enforce fracking regulations).

    Read the Cleveland Plain-Dealer series on the weakness of state enforcement and regulation of fracking. The regs assume we can trust captive regulators and companies that can’t even keep their gas from pouring out of their neighbor’s water taps.

    If we focused instead on ramping up wind (fastest growing generation) and solar, and demand-side management (as they are doing in cities like San Antonio), we might be able to follow the lead of Germany and Ontario—which is planning to close its coal plants by the end of 2014. Yes, gas will be relied upon fore intermittent capacity during off-peak hours when there’s less solar and wind (until pumped storage technologies are in place and energy efficiency and demand-side management are given due consideration by ISOs and PUCs—forget the companies that depend on generation and block third party generators from accessing the grid, even though solar and wind are proven to be cheaper).

    By CfC on 2013 03 25

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • this is a ridiculous idea. the article acts like the drilling down series in the New York Times, or subsequent in depth reporting on the significant problems with fracking never happened. Its not the celebrities that have people worried, its the unchecked and unregulated expansion of fracking, an industrial, dangerous process.

    By JesseColeman on 2013 03 25

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply


  • Fracktivists + Next Generation Nuclear would make a great team.  One by one, all other options are being blocked.  Meanwhile, nuclear is just getting cleaner all the time.  Looking at the damages list from fracking, can it be shown that, per unit of energy extracted, fracking is worse than today’s nuclear energy?  How about tomorrows?  Next generation nuclear is designed to use this generation nuclear waste as fuel, which means that waste would be eliminated.  Fracking does seem horribly violent to the earth and who wants to mess with groundwater.  Nuclear storage experts aren’t nearly as careless as frackers.  I can see why people have a visceral reaction against it.  Fracking v. nuclear:  Let’s have an infographic!

    By Rezwan Razani on 2013 03 31

    Reply to this comment / Quote and reply

Submit a comment





About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

Click here to view their recent articles.