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The Striking Challenge of Fracking: Who Does It Benefit and Who Gets Hurt

Two experts on fracking debate the controversial topic with strong u2014 and sometimes opposing u2014 points of view as part of a new collaborative media project.

(Photo: Fracking in open via Shutterstock)

Fracking is now a flashpoint in debates about climate change, energy policy, and inequality.

AlterNet has partnered with the Nathan Cummings Foundation to produce Summits on Tenth, a new video series featuring conversations that challenge conventional thinking on the issues you care about. In our second installment, “The Striking Challenge of Fracking: Who Does it Benefit and Who Gets Hurt?” Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute and Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council present strong — and sometimes opposing — points of view on this complicated topic.

Find out what fracking looks like to people from different vantage points and learn about the trade-offs, the dangers, and the future of fracking.

You can watch the highlights of the debate or the full debate below, plus read a series of mini op-eds from diverse thinkers who respond to the debate. You can also read the full transcript of the debate here.

Watch the highlights of the debate:

Here’s the full program:

Read responses to the debate:

Phil Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace

Natural gas is a false hope fuel that is too risky, expensive, and the American people don’t need it—the Fossil Fuel industry of the past, like ExxonMobil and Chesapeake Energy, does.

Natural gas has increased in price by 60% this year compared to this time last year, so the promise of cheap gas was a false promise that will only lock America into another dirty fossil fuel. The American Gas Association says itself that if you want to get fracked gas from places like Ohio you’re paying a price that is more than you pay for solar and wind. Even markets are projecting that natural gas will be cost effective for electricity production. Wind is the cheapest form of new electricity, making up over 9% of TX’s energy mix, and counting, and 25% of Iowa’s. And I’m one of thousands of people across the country who just put solar on my home, and I’m saving 30% on my electric bill. The fracked natural gas supply is now outstripping demand in the US, which is why companies want to export it, but exporting liquified natural gas means more drilling which means more fracking, more air and water pollution, and more unnatural weather disasters. It’s the fossil fuel cycle we must avoid.

All new electricity generating capacity in the United States in January 2013 was renewable energy sources. Renewables were 49% of all new electricity last year. Farmers in Kansas and electricians in North Carolina know that these jobs are real, and they’re here now. This is a way to save the family farm.

We need an energy revolution now. The barriers to clean energy are political, not practical. Once the natural gas boom is officially over, it will no longer be the cheap solution to other fossil fuel pollution energy companies claim it is. We can already see natural gas prices leaping upwards, and that will only continue as the price of extraction, storage, and transport continues to rise.


Jonathan Cedar, Chief Executive Officer of BioLite

In the recent Summits on Tenth debate, Kate Sinding condemns fracking by first acknowledging that natural gas is cleaner than coal, but then stating that “better is not good enough.” While I agree with Ms. Sinding that a new generation of CO2 neutral technologies is needed to replace fossil fuels, we should not let our pursuit of the ideal interrupt the practical, implementable, affordable steps available today to minimize CO2 emissions and slow our rapid pace of climate disruption.

Whether we like it or not, global energy demand is continuing to rise and the choice we face today is whether we service that demand with cleaner (not to be confused with clean) or dirtier fuels. Natural gas releases approximately half the CO2 per BTU of energy as coal. Extraction and distribution of natural gas certainly has safety risks for both people and climate, but so do all of the current large-scale alternatives.

Rather than focusing our energy on condemning the cleanest of our admittedly imperfect energy options, we should embrace the replacement of dirty fuels with cleaner ones, while simultaneously creating an economic and regulatory environment that will allow yet cleaner alternatives to emerge.

Today’s cleanest energy sources, solar, wind, geothermal and others, do not yet compete at scale economically with low cost fossil fuels. And what’s worse, a whole generation of new technologies have not even made it out of the lab for lack of a financially viable future. At the same time, we know that the impacts of climate change will cost the United States and the world at large untold sums. It’s time that we price the externalities of dirty energy in the form of a carbon tax and level the playing field to let our markets, along with our government, usher in a new generation of clean energy. But in the meanwhile, we should embrace every improvement towards reduced emissions, no matter if it’s still imperfect.


Diane Pitcock, West Virginia Host Farms Program

The debate over natural gas vs. coal seems to focus on the idea that natural gas is a “cleaner” energy source, as alternative to coal burning plants. But is that really the case? Or is it just another dirty fossil fuel that we should be moving away from to seek “greener” alternatives such as solar and wind power?

The industry hype promoting natural gas that we are being fed, by way of a massive public relations campaign on television, radio, and in newspapers, does not realistically show the very real impacts of this type of energy development. Natural gas extraction processes are not clean at all! And it is certainly not the same “fracking” that’s been done safely for more than 60 years, as we’ve been told to believe.

Shale gas drilling involves a newer “fracking” process known as “slick water, high pressure, high volume, horizontal fracking,” to be more precise. It poses far greater risk to health and environment. Consider this, in order to do what they do, the industry had to be exempt from key provisions of seven federal environmental laws (the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (otherwise known as Superfund) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act).

Living in Doddridge County, West Virginia at “ground zero” of the drilling, I am seeing firsthand the industrialization of our rural communities. The allegations of well water contamination, air quality and health issues, road destruction, erosion, illegal dumping, landowner rights abuses, and quality of life issues associated with extracting natural gas beneath us are staggering! The long term environmental and health impacts have not been adequately assessed ahead of the rush to drill for shale gas.

The environmental researchers and journalists would be well served to visit these heavily drilled areas of rural America to get “the rest of the story.” It’s not a pretty picture.


Anthony R. Ingraffea, Ph.D., P.E.. Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, Weiss Presidential Teaching Fellow at Cornell University

Mr. Shellenberger says, “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.” He is about 5 years out-of-touch with reality: The US has been in the process of a transition: it is transitioning away from coal, and natural gas, and oil and towards green renewables. His statements about gas being good for renewables is, well, insulting. He is completely behind the times on his criticisms of wind and solar availability (has he read our recent papers in Energy Policy on the capability to completely replace all fossil fuels for all energy needs in New York and in California with an assortment of renewables? Clearly, Kate has as she exhibits in her rebuttal remarks). He, like many “environmentalists” are ABC: anything but coal. I agree with the “but coal” part of that mantra, but not with the “anything.” Natural gas can be greenwashed, but it is still a fossil fuel, and I strongly agree with Kate when she says “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.”

Kate is also exactly correct when she asks if shale gas is “…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.” I would not have left that as a question, I would have stated it as fact.

Also, Mr. Shellenberger says, “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.” Wrong on the latter. Nobody knows what the actual leakage rate is — that is the subject of post-policy-statement ongoing research, as he knows.

Finally, I am concerned that Mr. Shellenberger tosses out fossil fuel industry talking points as if candy to kids, but is way behind on their factual bases. The most important of these is the reverse of his so-called transition from coal to methane for electricity generation: has he noticed this reversal in the past few months, as methane prices have edged up, coal use has begun to rise, and with exportation of our “home grown energy source” as LNG [liquified natural gas] on the horizon and its concomitant further increase in methane cost here, the US will soon be back to more coal at home. The methane industry will be laughing all the way to the bank.

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