Weighing the Benefits and Trade-Offs of Natural Gas

A Conversation with Michael Shellenberger & NRDC’s Kate Sinding

Below is an excerpt from the conversation. You can view the complete video, as well as an 11-minute highlight video and responses from other experts here.

MODERATOR: Kate Sinding is a senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program. Her primary focus involves ensuring the proposed natural gas drilling in the northeast is subject to the most stringent environment and health protections.

Michael Shellenberger is an author, environmental policy expert and the president of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a long-time grantee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Co-editor of “Love your Monsters” and “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael, and his coauthor Ted Nordhaus, were described by Slate Magazine as modernists or ecopragmatists. Welcome to both of you.

KATE SINDING: Thank you.

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Thanks for having us.

MODERATOR: For many of us, our views on tough issues like fracking don't just come from what we've learned in a book. They come through our lived experience. So I wonder if we might ask you, first Kate and then Michael, just to say a word or two about how did you develop a passion for the environment, what got you to this work. Sort of personally, why are you here tonight?

MS. SINDING: Sure. Yeah. I think my interest goes back to the way that I was raised. My parents were both in the foreign service and so I was raised largely abroad which gave me an opportunity to experience a variety of cultures and natural - develop a real passion for different kinds of natural environments. I was always told I should be an advocate or, most specifically, a lawyer, growing up. And I fought that as I guess any good arguer would until it became inevitable.

And then deciding that I was going to bring those skills to work on the environment specifically came into play between college and law school when I spent some time in Los Angeles. And it was actually experiencing the transition from the clear skies of the winter to the smoggy summer that it really came home to me that that's where I wanted to put my energies.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Michael.

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Well, I grew up in a small town in Colorado where, in fact, there's a lot of natural gas activity going on. And I spent a lot of my childhood in the mountains hiking and skiing. And then I was a very political young man in my adolescence. And I wanted to experience the Nicaraguan revolution. So in 1988 when I was 17 I went to Nicaragua and lived with families there, one family in particular. Most of them - I mean, everybody I lived with was using for wood for fuel. And I got to see up close both how harmful that is to the health of women that cook over woodstoves all day long and also how degrading it is the forests in the nearby region when you're dependent on wood for your fuel. So for me, that nexus between social justice and environmental quality was really clear from a pretty young age.

Watch the full conversation below:

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks. So, tonight's discussion about fracking is obviously part of a larger debate about climate change, about global warming, about energy access. But I want to strip that away and focus in for a second and ask you: This is a complex issue. And we sometimes get confused what is the issue, what isn't the issue. Just want to define the issue. So if I could ask each of you, first Michael and then Kate, to just very simply, without a lot of drama, what is the issue that we're debating when people say, where are you on the fracking debate? So just clear and simple - like a 101 for the audience: What is the debate about?

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Well, I think what we're dealing with is an energy transition. So we're - the United States is in the process of transitioning, or it could be even further, away from coal and towards natural gas. So in 2007, we got about 50 percent of our electricity from coal. Last year, we got about 38 percent. Coal has been viewed over the last 20 years as the enemy of the climate - the number one enemy of the climate, environmental enemy number one. It's because it's so carbon intensive. It's really contributing to the warming of the planet over the last hundred or so years. And the other thing about coal people don't understand, it's sponge rock, so it absorbs a lot of dangerous minerals, including mercury, that when burned go into the food system and we get them in our bodies and have all sorts of health problems - also one of the most dangerous professions.

Now, we're moving toward natural gas. Natural gas has a bunch of other challenges associated with it. There's still carbon in it. There's still impacts on the landscape. And those have to be dealt with. I think it's important though to sort of see this transition in that historical context. When we moved from wood to coal there were also big problems and there were also huge benefits. And I think as a society, we need to, you know, help the victims of those transitions as well as take advantage of some of the benefits.

MODERATOR: So in one sentence, what is the crux of the debate about fracking?

MR. SHELLENBERGER: I think the crux of the debate is how to manage the negative impacts of natural gas exploration.

MODERATOR: Kate, how do you see it?

MS. SINDING: I - you know, I certainly agree with what Michael said about coal. And there's no question that it's terrible and we've got to get ourselves off it as quickly as possible. I think I'd frame the debate about fracking a little bit differently. And I think what I'd say is, you know, fracking is a technology that's been around for a while, but due to recent innovations has enabled us to tap reservoirs of natural gas and oil that weren't previously available. And it's - the debate that has really framed up is, on the one hand, does that present an economic boon, an opportunity for energy independence, in the case of gas, a chance to move off of coal? Or does it represent a - just yet another exploitation of a fossil fuel, one that brings with it significant impacts in the communities where it's extracted and one that may further delay us from meeting the climate imperative that we all face.

MODERATOR: So before we can move forward and have our discussion or our debate, do we have to debate what we're debating? Or, Michael, would you agree with Kate's framing of the debate - (inaudible).

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Sure. No, I think we're in the same ballpark, so

MODERATOR: We know what we're debating.

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Yeah, I think so. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: So now that we know what we're debating, I'm going to ask you to each offer your position. So maybe we'll start with you, Kate, and then to go you, Michael. What is your position on the debate you both just summarized about fracking?

MS. SINDING: OK, sure. NRDC's top priority is to address climate change. And as I indicated, there - we completely agree that coal is the worst and we've got to get ourselves off coal as quickly as we can. I think where we differ is with respect to what the role of the environmental community is with respect to gas development. Our top priority is to move us to truly clean energy as quickly as we can. And by that, I mean energy efficiency and renewables. We acknowledge that gas is cleaner than coal when it's burned. And we acknowledge that gas will inevitably have a role to play in our energy future no matter what we do.

But it's not clean enough, either to meet the climate imperative or because of the substantial impacts that it does have in terms of its production. I think where we would take some issue with the Breakthrough Institute's work on this issue is that they, I think, understate the impacts - the very real impacts associated with its development. And the other area where I think we may diverge if that we see a greater risk that going all-in on gas development really does take us on a path where we're dependent on fossil fuels far longer than the planet can sustain and takes us off of the transition path that we need to be on towards truly clean energy.

MODERATOR: I know it's tempting to want to rebut Kate's initial critique, but just start, Michael, if you would, with what is Breakthrough's position on the fracking debate?

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Well, I think the first thing is just that we're - we are in the midst of a transition and we need to continue that transition. Gas is just better than coal at every metric: about 25 deaths per terawatt hour with coal, about 3 with natural gas; almost no mercury in natural gas, coal is full of it; about twice the carbon in coal as in gas. So I think we basically agree that gas is better than coal and we need to replace coal with it.

MODERATOR: That's true, Kate. We agree. Gas is better than coal.

MS. SINDING: We agree that gas is better than coal.

MODERATOR: All right. I'm going to check that one off. (Laughter.)

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Yeah. I think the other thing is that gas is actually good for renewables. Most people aren't totally aware - they might be aware - solar and wind, obviously, are not always on. They're not considered baseload sources of power. So they need to have either a backup in the form of batteries which are very expensive, really not - we don't have utility scale batteries, really - or pump storage, such as using hydroelectric dams. But mostly what we use is gas. And the very cheap gas that we've got over the last several years has not had a negative impact at all on renewables. In fact, renewables, because they're totally dependent on subsidies, and when we took the - Congress almost took the subsidy away from wind last year and the entire industry shut down. In fact, for six months there was really no starts on wind. So what gas does is it - as the - as they see the wind coming off line or as, you know, night come, they ramp back up the gas to cover that. So I think there's - I don't think there's any question on that, either. I think gas is really good for renewables.

So then there's the question of -

MODERATOR: Hold that thought.


MODERATOR: Is gas good for renewables?

MS. SINDING: What I would say on that is that gas has been used as a backup for renewables. But increasingly because of our ability with forecasting to understand when renewables are going to be able to be on and off line and as we ramp up more and more renewable development in wider geographic areas, we're going to have to - we're going to be able to use forecasting more to do load balancing and have much less reliance on backup fuels, including gas.


MR. SHELLENBERGER: That's not really true. I mean, Germany actually is a good test of this. They have a lot of solar they've installed. And in fact, they've actually had to be more reliant on other sources of baseload power that they can ramp up. Most people don't know that half of Germany's renewable commitment is actually in the form of trash or burning trees, neither of which - I don't think either of those is particularly environmentally sustainable.

So it's not really the case that if you get more renewables you have more reliability. In fact, if you have more renewables - what they've had to do in Germany sometimes when you do have a lot of electricity coming from renewables, they have to dump that power onto the grid. You have Germany's neighbors who are connected to Germany through the grid having to actually shut down electrical transmission on those moments so as not to overwhelm their grids.

That's a huge problem in Germany. They're really struggling to figure it out. And I think it's worth noting that while U.S. emissions have declined faster than any other country in the world over the last five years, Germany is going back to coal. Last year their emissions went up 1.5 percent. This year there's likely to go up again. So I - when you kind of - when we position it as renewables versus gas, you risk actually supporting coal. And that's what the German example shows.

MODERATOR: Kate, one more run at that one?

MS. SINDING: Yeah, I think there are a few steps that got skipped there, or maybe some leaps in logic. You know, what I'm talking about is innovations in technology that are going to address some of the issues that have historically existed, that have meant that we've had to have other sources of power to backup renewables. And we're looking at just extraordinarily rapid innovation changes with renewables over the last five years alone.

I'm not trying to make the case that there's no role for gas to play currently in backing up renewables, but I'm saying that we're going to have an increasing ability to turn to technological innovation that allows us to move away from gas.

MODERATOR: So we agree that gas is better than coal but we don't agree yet about the relationship between gas and renewables. Is that fair between the two of you?

MS. SINDING: I don't know that we completely disagree. I think maybe what I would say is we're less convinced that you need to have an expansion in gas production. In fact, we don't believe you need to have any expansion in gas production in order to ramp up renewables. And again, we haven't - what we haven't touched on at all efficiency, which is where we can still gain tremendous amounts in terms of weaning our energy consumption.

MODERATOR: OK, so let me ask you to do this. Each of you, in 30 seconds: What is your organization's position on fracking? Michael then Kate.

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Well, I - fracking's a little bit of a strange way to put it. I think we should accelerate the transition from coal to gas. And in think that in order to do that we need to continue to make natural gas production safer and cleaner. So one thing to keep in mind, between 1990 and 2010, gas production increased 40 percent and yet methane leakage from overall gas production declined 10 percent. So - and that's the result of both public pressure, government regulations, and new technologies coming on - a lot of innovation, a lot of it which has been supported by the Department of Energy over the years. So I think more innovation, more of a transition from coal to gas.

MODERATOR: More innovation -

MS. SINDING: How many seconds did you give me? (Laughs.)

MODERATOR: More innovation, more transition from coal to gas?

MS. SINDING: Yeah, that wouldn't - that would not be NRDC's position. NRDC's position with respect to fracking is very complicated. This is really complicated issue. And I can't give it to you in a 10-second sound bite. But what I would say is, we are very concerned about the rapid expansion of natural gas development, which has been largely a result of fracking, at least in this country and increasingly abroad. We're very concerned that it's inadequately regulated at every level at this point, that there are significant impacts and significant risks that still aren't fully understood. So our position is that we need to understand much more fully what those risks are. And in the meantime, we need to go all-in on renewables and energy efficiency. Those are the true clean energy solutions.

MODERATOR: So if I was going to give you each a tagline, NRDC would be “wait and see” and Breakthrough would be “frack, baby, frack”?

MR. SHELLENBERGER: (Laughs.) No, I think that - like I said, I think that for fracking to really be successful, it needs to get even better, it need to get even cleaner than it already is. So I don't - I don't - that sort of makes me - that's sort of the wrong framing, I would say. And I think that you've had a track record of the government, of communities and of the industry trying to work this stuff out. And it's contentious and it's conflictual, but that's life on Earth. That's life in America in particular.

MODERATOR: Do you want to respond to “wait and see”?

MS. SINDING: Yeah. I mean, I don't know that my communications people would like that - (laughs) - as our tagline. They'd probably think it needs some refinement. But I don't think that's a - that's a bad way of putting it. You know, again, we recognize it's happening. And I guess the one addition I would add to that is that we do recognize that it is happening in many communities. People are being affected right now. It's not being adequately regulated. And a not insignificant part of our work is making sure that we do everything we can to put better safeguards in place in those - in those communities now.

MODERATOR: Now, in a real honest effort to understand each other and the issues better, I want to ask you first, Michael, and then you, Kate, to share with us the one, two or three biggest weaknesses or blind spots in the other's point of view.

So if I was going to ask you, Michael, what is limited or missing or lacking in the NRDC's perspective on this, and then ask you the same - (inaudible) -

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing is a broad perspective of energy transitions. So over the last couple of hundred years, countries all over the world have basically moved in a similar direction when it comes to modernizing their sources of energy. They've gone from wood and dung to coal and hydroelectric, from coal and hydroelectric to gas, from gas to nuclear and renewables; that's a trajectory where you move towards less carbon-intensive sources of energy, and it's been mostly incremental, and mostly to the benefit of health, life expectancy, quality of life. So I think having that broad perspective is missing.

I think the second thing is that there's really - really, for 40 years, environmental groups have waved away the challenges of intermittency. People say things like, well, we'll have smart grids, you know? Or we'll have pump storage or air compression, and really, those problems - not only have they not been addressed or are not going away - Kate mentioned - we've got all these technologies that are going to come online and make that manageable - well, Germany is the technological leader when it comes to managing renewables, and they're experiencing huge problems. I encourage people to go look at - Der Spiegel has a major investigative report out this week; others have been looking at it. They ran into huge challenges by not dealing with the intermittency thing.

So I - you know, and I think the third part is that you've got to pay attention to both winners and losers, and with gas, you have seen - we have left seven times more coal in the ground than we've exported. We're in the midst of a - of a transition that's basically positive, that we should not be putting the brakes on, that has been good for the environment; it's been good for workers, and frankly it's a much better job to be working in natural gas than in coal.

And it's been good for the whole country, good for the economy. It's produced $100 billion a year - it's acted as a second stimulus for President Obama. In fact, I think it might be fair to say that I'm not sure President Obama would have Ohio or won re-election if it hadn't been for the gas boom.

MODERATOR: Kate, what are the biggest weaknesses in the Breakthrough position?

MS. SINDING: You know, I think the biggest weakness is that better is not good enough, that the fact that gas is better than coal - and there is no argument there - I mean - and I should say, because there are going to be people out there who disagree with that, that there are folks who think that because of the methane emissions and so on, and, in fact, gas may be worse than coal, and I think there's a lot of data that's coming out on that - but even if you accept as true that gas is cleaner than coal, which we do, it's not good enough.

And there - what we need to be doing - and Breakthrough Institute has acknowledged the success of subsidies and other policies that exist to really ramp up efficiency and renewables as quickly as possible - that's where we've got to be focusing our energy. The gas industry doesn't need our help promoting its product; it does a pretty darn good job of doing that on its own. We need to be focusing on moving to the really true clean energy alternatives that are going to solve the climate crisis and that are going to make for cleaner energy production in all communities.

MODERATOR: So let me ask you. Does us moving forward more aggressively with fracking, natural gas expansion - does it make a difference for the poorest people in the world? Is it a net gain for the 2 billion people who don't have enough access to energy, and do you - what do you - either of you think about that? You agree about that? Disagree about that?

MR. SHELLENBERGER: It could be. I mean, one of the most exciting things is - so there's 1.3 billion people in the world who don't have any access - really any access at all to modern energy - about 2 billion that have just a little bit, like a light bulb a few hours a day. Those desperately poor people need to consume a lot more energy, you know? There's studies that show that women that breathe wood smoke lose about 20 years of their life. So just getting energy production out of their homes into centralized power stations, having an electrical grid - these are the foundations of modern life.

Now, what's interesting about Africa in particular is that they have a lot more gas than they do coal. And in fact, you look at a country like Nigeria - obviously, a lot of gas in that country - a big oil and gas industry - not particularly well-managed, because it's not a particularly well-managed country. So when you - when you think about energy access, you can't help but talk about these larger questions of development.

But the potential is that a place like Africa could skip coal. They could go right to natural gas, have always-on electricity that's cheap, abundant, that's going to really fuel their modernization and development. I think what would be great is if we could keep our coal in the ground, just like we - you know, we stopped going after whales. You know, if you look at the 19th century, whale oil spiked in the middle of the 19th century. We didn't move away from it because we had a cap and trade on whales or a whale tax; we invented better alternatives. First it was kerosene, and then it was electricity. And I think that's exactly what's happening right now with coal in the United States. I think it has the potential to happen that way in Europe, and I think also the same thing for China.

MODERATOR: Say a word about this transition or about the potential benefit to people in Africa from your point of view.

MS. SINDING: Yeah. You know, I guess what I would - what I would to say to that - and there's no question that we've got tremendous issues associated with meeting the energy demands of a growing global population. But the same concerns that we have about the ill effects of production in this country would extend elsewhere. We are currently working with the government in China, and to some extent, in India, in trying to tell them what we've learned about the experience of fracking in this country, what the risks are, what we know, what we don't know, what are better ways to manage those risks. And those are things certainly that if other countries are going to choose to exploit their natural gas resources, we would want to export to them. But we - you know, we don't view any single fuel - and including natural gas - as being a panacea for meeting the world's energy needs.

MODERATOR: Is it true that this whole fracking debate is producing some sort of short-term benefit, but the prices are going to go up, the methane isn't going to be as manageable as we thought, and we're going to end up saying, this was kind of a - not a shortcut, but a detour? Is that a fear for either of you or a concern?

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Yes, go ahead, Kate.

MS. SINDING: Well, I mean, I guess I would - I would question the premise of the short-term benefit. I mean, there is no question that the fracking boom has resulted in a decrease in gas prices, and that does bring with it some benefits. And there's no question that there have been some economic winners associated with the fracking boom and the increase in natural gas development. That said, there have been a lot of losers, too. There are folks who have been affected by water contamination, who are being affected by air contamination, whose property values have been affected; there are communities who are dealing with very serious community impacts associated with the - with the rush of a new fossil fuel industry coming into town. And those are things that can't be discounted and that aren't being properly accounted for in our current debate about natural gasses as a beneficial fuel. So I don't know if that answered the - (inaudible) -

MR. SHELLENBERGER: Yeah, my perception's a little bit different. I think that, actually, the victims of it are being - especially in, like, the New York media market and the celebrity involvement in this - I think, actually, that's what's gotten the attention. It's not a one-to-one thing. It's not like - the gas revolution is not creating as many victims as it is creating beneficiaries. It's just simply not the case. It wasn't the case when we went from wood to coal, either. People lost their jobs chopping and hauling wood, but it allowed people to have modern energy. It allowed people to live decades longer, and it allowed us to save our forests.

And that's - with coal - going from coal to gas, we are clearly moving from a worse energy source to a better energy source. So yes, in acknowledging that, you're not overlooking the fact that there are victims who we need to deal with it, but I think we have to put those in context.

The one little thing I would just say too is, we say fracking - it's a kind of a - it's a great word, because it's got that edge to it. We did a pretty detailed history - the first one - of the shale gas revolution. It was really three separate technologies that were important. All of them were supported by US taxpayers. It was horizontal drilling, it was the fracking, and it was underground mapping, which comes from a long - an amazing history of just how we got to those tools.

And I think, as Kate mentioned, you know, as gas goes abroad, the U.S. is going to contribute much better technologies for getting gas than have previously existed. So I think it's important to - you know, and there's been talk for awhile about actually moving away from using water in those fracks - using butane or some other way of getting the gas underground.

So I think if you really care about these environmental impacts, it's not just no, no, no. It's also got to be, how do we actually apply human ingenuity and our collective resources into solving these problems through technological innovation?

To hear Kate’s response to Michael’s point above and the rest of the interview, watch the video, or read the full transcript at AlterNet.org.