Between Shale and a Hard Place

Fracking Drives Down Emissions But Drives Up Political Controversy

Presidential politics these days is about improving economic production and job creation. And while the focus lately is on which half of the country is more entitled to the federal pie, the attention should shift in part to the unyielding trends that now permeate the climate change debate.

As recent data shows, cutting the level of heat-trapping emissions and enhancing economic productivity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the emergence of the shale gas revolution has not only reduced carbon dioxide levels to their lowest levels in 20 years but it is also coinciding with the reduced use of coal. In other words, natural market forces are negating what many say is “man-made” global warming.

“Climate change is not a hoax,” says President Obama, during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The Obama administration is enacting stricter air quality rules that also include greenhouse gas restrictions, all to encourage a shift away from older technologies and into cleaner ones. Tougher rules are, in fact, giving natural gas facilities a leg up over the competition. But cheap and abundant natural gas supplies are also providing the fuel source an edge.

The result is that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have been falling, even though more people are using more energy. Altogether, the Energy Information Administration is reporting that those emissions are 2.4 percent less in 2011 than they were in 2010. They are also 9.1 percent less than in 2007.

True, years of economic lag have meant that commercial and industrial enterprises are demanding less energy. But now those financial prospects and numbers are starting to tick up. The decline in carbon dioxide is therefore tied more to fuel switching than anything else. It’s also associated with higher oil prices, causing people to drive less — something that may also lead to more alternatively-fueled vehicles.

The implications: Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production. By 2035, natural gas, generally, will make up about 45 percent of the utility generation market, says the Energy Information Administration. At the same time, coal-fired power has fallen from 50 percent of all electric generation to about 45 percent — a trend that will also continue.

Most likely, those numbers and their subsequent ramifications on both the environment and the economy will ripple throughout the broader electorate. But while the associated facts may be undeniable, the respective campaigns may choose to tone down their messages: President Obama does not want to inflame an already agitated coal community while GOP-hopeful Mitt Romney runs the continued risk of highlighting his ever-evolving policies.

Simply, Obama is walking a fine line between conveying that the financial security of his compatriots supersedes all of their other concerns while still letting his environmental supporters know that he will not forsake a future stocked with sustainable fuels. Romney, meantime, has switched from backing carbon curbs to pledging his undying support of oil and coal — a move that his opponents will keep underscoring. The former Massachusetts governor says that he is now more intent on increasing the wealth of families than on “slowing the rise of the oceans.”

Certainly, people of goodwill disagree over whether climate change is the culmination of industrial activity or whether it is a naturally-occurring phenomenon. The discussion, though, has become politicized and is driven in large part by PR campaigns and political contributions – not necessarily by the climatologists who are motivated by pure science. To the point: Fossil fuel money is going mostly to Republicans while to a much lesser extent, New Energy dough is heading to Democrats.

Beyond the graft that is distorting the debate, some important environmental and economical factors are surfacing. Consider the severe summer heat waves and the subsequent droughts, all of which has hurt food production this year. Then add to that the number of typhoons rolling across Asia, and it is fueling concerns that man-made global warming is dawning right now.

All this is happening alongside revelations by NASA, which is saying that Greenland’s massive ice sheet thawed this summer while 13 percent of the earth’s surface is now experiencing extreme summer heat. Meantime, the National Snow and Ice Data Center says that the sea ice in the Arctic has fallen to the lowest level ever measured, all noted by a recent Politico story.

Spending billions to prevent an improbable scenario is undesirable. But taking smaller, practical steps to avert the possibility of environmental and economic hardship is rational. What then is the best means to achieve such a goal? The answer is invariably some combination of regulatory actions and market forces.

Along those lines, some civic and environmental groups are expressing concern over the methods used to extract shale gas and whether those processes are polluting drinking water supplies. If not properly addressed, the protests could derail the shale revolution. That’s why Obama would require more federal oversight and specifically a requirement to publicly detail the chemicals used to drill. Romney, meantime, would exclude federal involvement and continue to let the states oversee the gas industry.

Indeed, both Obama and Romney would favor their benefactors through their application of the regulatory levers and through their allocation of federal monies. Those actions will assuredly carry weight but they will have less sway than the market forces that are now propelling the natural gas movement.

Some are calling natural gas a bridge to a greener future. Some are saying it is long-term phenomenon. No matter what, the current progression is aligning twin causes: reducing the level of harmful emissions while increasing economic output.

Originally published at Forbes.