Climate Campaigner Bill McKibben's Misleading Anti-Fracking Crusade

"We closed coal plants and opened methane leaks, and the result is that things have gotten worse."



Climate campaigner Bill McKibben is against fracking shale to produce natural gas. In a new article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Chemistry," over at The Nation, McKibben claims that recent research suggests that leaking methane is offsetting the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions that come from switching from coal to gas to generate electricity. Burning methane produces about half the carbon dioxide that burning coal does. However, methane in the short run is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and so much is supposedly escaping into the atmosphere from fracking that shale gas could be worse than coal for the climate. As a consequence, McKibben wants to ban fracking.

McKibben is chiefly relying upon a study by Harvard researchers that claim to have detected a 30 percent increase in U.S. methane emissions over the period 2002-2014 using satellite and other data. Such an increase would basically offset the Environmental Protection Agency's claims that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have been declining since 2005. This would mean that the U.S. is far from meeting President Obama's pledge to cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent below its 2005 emission levels by 2020.

McKibben's article is misleading argues Ted Nordhaus, one of the founders of the eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute think tank. Nordhaus points out that McKibben failed to note or cite another study on recent atmospheric methane trends published in Science in early March. In that study, New Zealand researchers were able to distinguish sources of methane based on the presence of various carbon isotopes. The researchers report that the increases in atmospheric methane since 2006 have come almost entirely from biological sources, e.g., wetlands, rice farming, and livestock. If this is the case, then a ban on fracking would be counter-productive since it would deny people access to a cheap and lower-carbon fuel source. Nordhaus notes that McKibben must have been aware of this high-profile study that contradicts his anti-fracking thesis.

To make the methane situation even more confusing, another study from German researchers was published one day after the Science article in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics that used ethane emissions as a way to trace methane sources. They concluded that "at least 40% of the worldwide methane concentration increase after 2007 have to be attributed to the oil and gas sector and that the emissions took place in the northern hemisphere."

McKibben's bottom line:

One of the nastiest side effects of the fracking boom, in fact, is that the expansion of natural gas has undercut the market for renewables, keeping us from putting up windmills and solar panels at the necessary pace.

Nordhaus's bottom line: 

So long as the climate movement is limited to NIMBY fracking opponents, anti-nuclear greens, and renewables fabulists, it is unlikely to achieve either the broad social consensus that will be necessary to advance aggressive action, nor action that is particularly likely to achieve the levels of carbon reduction that will be necessary to significantly mitigate climate change. 

Nordhaus is right.