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The Guardian reports that the UK fracking tsar, Natascha Engel, has resigned and blamed anti-fracking activism for "fear-mongering", saying:

“There is much to be optimistic about how developing technologies – including fracking – can help us accelerate the reduction in CO2 and grow our economy. Sadly today only those who shout get heard.”

To me this seems completely illogical. I would think that fracking can only increase the supply of fossil fuel, that any increase in supply causes some increase in consumption, and that any increase in consumption of fossil fuel causes an increase in CO2.

Is there any validity to her claim?

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    @Oddthinking: Deleting Peter's answer is a political rant. His answer is sourced, and relevant. Let users vote on it for its merits, instead of swinging the mod banhammer. – DevSolar Apr 30 at 8:27
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    @Sklivvz: Please specify which part of Randy's answer requires sourcing. That burning any fossil fuel will release CO2 to the atmosphere? The two remaining answers are ridiculously misleading, and you mods banhammer the dissenting opinions. You make me sick. – DevSolar Apr 30 at 8:30
  • @DevSolar Thanks for the support. I added a defense on top of the (still deleted) post and "apply" for re-opening. Btw, how do I contact OddThinking or ask others about their opinion short of a Meta post? [ah, saw that in the FAQ: I can flag it.] – Peter A. Schneider Apr 30 at 9:21
  • @PeterA.Schneider I went ahead and opened a Meta post about this. – krubo Apr 30 at 9:24
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    I'm sure one could come up with a scenario where mining more coal would reduce overall CO2 production, if the coal were somehow used to offset some other really bad practice. – Daniel R Hicks May 2 at 22:15
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If it replaces coal mining for power production, fracking reduces CO2 emissions, but that's not the whole story. Burning anything results in increased CO2 emissions, and methane leaks in fracked gas infrastructure result in CO2 equivalent emissions that erase the gains in reduced CO2 emissions compared to coal.


Engel's argument rests on two key assumptions which have turned out true in the case of the U.S., which leads the world in shale gas production:

  1. Natural gas replaces coal as a source of electric power. This is basically true. With an aging coal fleet, increasing natural gas-burning generation capacity, and falling power prices, several economists have looked at the direct effects on coal consumption. Numbers vary, but anywhere from 28% to 49% of the reduction in U.S. coal consumption is a direct result of the influx of cheap natural gas caused by the shale gas boom (see also here and here for more nuanced analyses). This means that a world with shale gas burns less coal than one without it.

  2. Per kWh produced, coal-burning plants emit more CO2 than natural gas-burning plants. This is also true. Per unit of energy, coal produces more than twice as much CO2 as natural gas (source) when burned in a power plant.

But Engel ignores something that recent data is confirming more and more: leaks in natural gas production systems are chronically under-estimated and probably eliminate the GHG-reducing gains made by the shift from coal to natural gas.

This was documented in an article in Science published in 2018. The article, "Assessment of methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas supply chain", is behind a paywall, but Phys.org has a good summary. Here's the most significant finding (emphasis added):

[R]esearchers found most of the emissions came from leaks, equipment malfunctions and other "abnormal" operating conditions. The climate impact of these leaks in 2015 was roughly the same as the climate impact of carbon dioxide emissions from all U.S. coal-fired power plants operating in 2015, they found.

Net generation from coal and natural gas were roughly equal in 2015, with natural gas increasing and coal decreasing since then.

The reason for this massive impact, and why leakage is such a concern, is that methane as a greenhouse gas is 34 times more potent than CO2 on a 100-year timescale. And that's just the leaks -- the natural gas still has to be burned, which will produced additional CO2 emissions.

Strictly speaking, if you're intent on digging things up and burning them and all you care about is CO2, then shale gas is better than coal. But it's still putting CO2 into the atmosphere, and if you factor in the global warming potential of leaked methane, it stops looking any better than coal.

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    I think that last paragraph should be worded much stronger. There's no dithering about what is more "CO2e". There is no "switching" to shale gas, that gas is burned in addition to the coal and oil that's burned. If you care about CO2, stop burning fossilized carbon, full stop. Anything else is just deceiving yourself. – DevSolar Apr 29 at 13:25
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    @DevSolar The gas is burned in addition to coal and oil because it can reduce the demand on coal and oil; both which give off worse CO2 emissions. It's not really fair to call that gas "additional"; because if that power wasn't generated through shale gas or renewable resources, it would be produced by coal or oil. The benefeits of shale gas (if they had lower CO2e) would be that you can reduce your environmental effect, while still being competitive. If shale gas were better for CO2e, it would make a reasonable temporary change while cleaner resources become more economical. – JMac Apr 29 at 13:43
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    @DevSolar That's great and all, and we definitely need to do these things, but you're thinking of this from an ideal scenario where everyone is going to do the best thing for the environment, regardless of how it effects their bottom line. If that were the case, we should have already stopped burning fossil fuels. The point is that people will continue to burn fossil fuels regardless, if they can profit off it. It's not about the objectively best answer for the environment; but just if it's objectively better than economic alternatives. – JMac Apr 29 at 13:58
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    Re, "Burning anything results in increased CO2 emissions." If I burn petroleum, I release carbon that has been sequestered for tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years. If I burn hardwood logs, I am releasing carbon that has been sequestered for at most a century or so. If I burn fall leaves... less than one year. When you're talking about climate change, it's the long-term net change that matters. – Solomon Slow Apr 29 at 14:06
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    Is it better to shoot someone through the knee as compared to shooting them through the abdomen? Probably it is. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Apr 29 at 17:09
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First, let's agree on definitions. Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is a process by which fluids are drawn from the ground. In this context, the fluid would either be oil or natural gas.

From the article that you link:

Engel’s resignation letter said: “The UK is currently spending £7bn a year on importing gas – money that is not being used to build schools, hospitals or fix the potholes in our roads. Developing our own shale gas industry would mean money going into the Treasury rather than out.”

She added: “We know shale gas can be extracted safely. [...]

So she is discussing shale gas which is simply natural gas trapped in shale.

Also from the article:

Fracking, she said, had the potential to create jobs, economic security and provide a cleaner alternative to coal and biomass.

So she is specifically talking about substituting natural gas for coal. Some sources that support natural gas being better than coal in terms of greenhouse emissions:

Note that natural gas itself is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So to be cleaner than coal, they have to be careful not to let it leak.

It also may be worth noting that coal is a base load power, meaning that the plant is started and then run continuously. Turning the plant on and off is a lengthy process and not something that they do in response to variation in demand during the day. Coal power plants have a thermal mass, meaning that they continue producing electricity even after the flame is smothered.

Natural gas is on demand power. The generators can be smaller and turned on to meet demand. As such, natural gas is a more natural method to use with renewables like solar and wind than coal is. This is because those renewables are on supply power. They provide power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. But if you want power on a calm night, they don't help you.

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    I can't help but notice Engel moving the goalposts... some "£7bn a year on importing gas" could be spent on "build schools, hospitals or fix the potholes in our roads". As if shale gas extraction infrastructure would cost nothing. Of course it could be even profitable in the long run, but fossil energy extraction is almost always capital intensive. ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/… – Fizz Apr 28 at 9:52
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    Coal is not a baseload power source in the UK: it is a seasonal source (winter but not summer) and a daily high demand source (daytime rather than nighttime) - see gridwatch.templar.co.uk – Henry Apr 28 at 17:47
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    Natural gas is a gigantic win over coal as far as carbon output is concerned. That being said, its still adding carbon, which to many under the present circumstances is pulling in the wrong direction. – T.E.D. Apr 28 at 21:11
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    @T.E.D. yes, but when you account for CO2 equivalent leaks in fracked gas production, it may be worse. – LShaver Apr 28 at 21:13
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    @LShaver - I'm rather impatient with the "secondary effects pollution" arguments. Every power generation method has those, and I've yet to see someone pull that argument out and attempt to tally them up for both sides of their equation fairly. It would probably be madness to do so. It takes an entire society to make even a pencil – T.E.D. Apr 28 at 21:16
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The question is if fracking does...

...accelerate the reduction in CO2.

The answer is NO.

Consumption of fossil fuels is rising. (Also [1].)

So there is no reduction, and no acceleration of reduction that fracking could be part of.

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    Yes, this is intentionally flipping off certain user's idea of how this question should be answered, by turning their concept of argument on the head. – DevSolar May 2 at 9:35
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    The question is if fracking "can help accelerate the reduction of CO2", and if there is "any validity to the claims". It is not asking if it currently does help accelerate the reduction of CO2, so it's not really clear to me how that link or the information provided here actually addresses what was asked. Other answers seem to clearly demonstrate how it could reduce the production of CO2, under specific scenarios (and then point out why it's not realistic, or even the main factor to consider). This seems to misrepresent the issue. – JMac May 2 at 11:31
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    Again, you're addressing what is, while the question is talking about if it can. These are entirely different. It can be a part of accelerating reduction of CO2 emissions, under some very specific assumptions. This makes no effort to disprove that, and only shows that there is currently no reduction of CO2, not if there is any validity to the claim that it could. – JMac May 2 at 11:54
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    ...and investing in fracking (which is also what the original claim is about) is a bad way to go about reducing CO2 emissions, when compared to investing the same money in e.g. wind energy. (Just not from the perspective of the fracking industry, of course.) – DevSolar May 2 at 12:20
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    I don't see how your answer actually provides any evidence of that; it doesn't even discuss the basis of the claim. It literally only provides evidence that we are burning more fossil fuels right now than we previously were, and that CO2 levels are increasing. That provides no insight on the validity of what could happen. I'm not arguing that fracking is something we should be doing. I just don't think dismissing the claims without actually acknowledging what led them to make the claims is a good way to prove that the claim is flawed. – JMac May 2 at 12:23

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