Foreign Affairs Focus: Fred Krupp on Fracking and the Environment

The shale revolution carries real environmental dangers, especially the release of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. It still has the potential to benefit the environment as well as the economy, but only if industry and government work together to deal with the problems. To parse the potential risks and rewards, Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, sat down with Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

For more on fracking and the environment, read Krupp's recent piece for the magazine. A transcript of the interview is available below:

ROSE: Hi there. I'm Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs and I'm delighted to be here with another episode of "Foreign Affairs Focus."

Today, we have Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, who has a wonderful article in our May/June issue on the environmental issues surrounding fracking and the shale revolution. So let's get right to it.

Fred, is fracking good for the environment, bad for the environment, or does it depend?

KRUPP: Well, it does depend.

ROSE: On what?

KRUPP: It depends on how the process is conducted.

First of all, it's an industrial activity and in pristine areas that we want to keep a preserves for nature, it's not appropriate to do fracking, you know, everywhere. There's also, you know, if -- if you have an area that's close the shale formation, where the aquifers is right about the shale, you don't probably want to do fracking there. The risks are too great.

In other places, where you accept the idea that there's going to be industrialization, where the government and the communities accept that, then there is a way that you can do it and manage the effects, minimize the effects, and keep the neighbors protected in terms of their rights to -- for clean water and clean air.

ROSE: What about the climate? I mean, a lot of people feel that hydrocarbons are bad and we should get away from them entirely. Other people say gas is better than burning coal or burning gas is better than burning coal. How does the fracking and shale revolution fit into the climate debate?

KRUPP: Well, there's no question. We need to move to completely clean energy, solar and wind power, energy efficiency, geothermal. We need to modernize our grid and do demand shifts. And, at the Environmental Defense Fund, we're pushing full speed ahead on all of those initiatives.

At the same time, there's also no question that this country is pulling 28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas out of the ground every year. And we need to make that as beneficial to the climate as it can be. Right now, we have a time where natural gas has begun to replace coal-fired power plants as a source of the electrons we use in this country.

And that offers a number of unequivocal advantage; less mercury going into the air, less particulates. But in terms of the climate, we know that it burns much cleaner than coal; 50 percent of the carbon dioxide.

But whether or not those benefits are preserved and how much of those benefits are preserved really depends on how much of the product natural gas, which is 90 percent methane, how much of that product escapes into the atmosphere.

And that, Gideon, is because methane is a very potent greenhouse gas and even just if 2.7 percent of it escapes in the atmosphere, it offsets all the near-term advantages of switching from coal to natural gas.

ROSE: So if you burn methane, it's actually better than coal, but if you let methane just sort of leak into the atmosphere without capping the process in various ways, then it's actually potentially as bad or worse.

KRUPP: Yes. And the leaks -- we have to count leaks of the product, wherever they occur, whether it's at the wellhead or in the processing or gathering of the gas or in the long-distance transmission or on the way to the coal plant.

And by the way, two-thirds of our natural gas in this country are not used to generate electricity, but those leaks there, even one or two percent, have dramatic effects on the climate.

Most people don't know that a third of the climate change we're experiencing today, and fully half of what we expect to experience in the next 20 years, scientists tell us that's due to these very powerful, short-lived climate pollutants, methane being, by far, the most important gas of -- of this category.

ROSE: So should environmentalists fight the shale revolution, celebrate it or try to push for ways that will actually sort of benefit the climate and the environment, rather than destroy it.

KRUPP: Well, there's a couple of places, like New York, where governor hasn't made a decision as to whether to go forward with fracking or not. But in most places in the United States, where there are shale resources, it's happening.

So I think the question you ask, Gideon, is the wrong question. Environmentalists should recognize that it's happening, that in some circumstances, where it's happening in a sloppy way, neighbors are being impacted, and that it needs to be cleaned up.

We need to make sure we get the rules right on how to cement the wells so the shaft has integrity. We need to make sure that all of the effects are minimized, so that the neighbors are protected.

And on the climate issue, which you've appropriately raised, we need to absolutely make sure that we minimize the amount of methane escaping from the natural gas system into the atmosphere. One statistic we cite in the article is the recent study that EDF commissioned from ICF, collecting data from industry.

And it shows that, of all the methane leaks throughout the natural gas system in the United States, we could reduce 40 percent of them, a huge percentage, at a net expense of one penny per thousand produced feet -- a thousand cubic feet of produced natural gas. One cent to reduce emissions by 40 percent would make a big dent in the entire footprint of the United States on climate change.

ROSE: Would that be by capping -- or capping leaks in things?

KRUPP: It's through a series of measures, yes, by keeping the gas in the pipes, by capturing it when we do well completions, which right now is required for natural gas wells, but is not required for oil wells that also, many times, release methane, and by changing out valves that are now designed to leak, high-bleed pneumatic valves, with other valves that either don't leak or leak very little.

ROSE: So often today, the environmental movement and the private sector, for example, the energy sector, seem to be irrevocably at odds with mutually exclusive positions. EDF seems to try to bridge those gaps.

Is that an odd or unusual role? And tell me a little bit about the organization's larger mindset. Which side are you on?

KRUPP: Well, Gideon, I think we're on the side of ambitious pragmatism. We recognize that our brethren in the environmental community and the scientists are right that we need bold changes here. We need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases; that small incremental steps are not enough.

But we also recognize that we live in the real world and things like fracking and the exploitation of America's natural gas resource are going to happen. So let's maximize the benefit we get from converting a coal-fired power plant to natural gas, at the same time as we put petal to the metal on speeding the introduction of solar power and wind power. It's ambitious pragmatism.

ROSE: OK. Fred Krupp of EDF. Thank you very much. Good talking to you.

KRUPP: Thank you.

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