William A. Ruskin: Environmentalists Support Fracking But With Important Reservations

By William A. Ruskin

It is necessary that natural gas be substituted for coal and oil as an energy source if the world is to have any chance of avoiding runaway greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions, particularly from the developing world.

At present, it is unrealistic to expect renewable energy sources (solar, wind and geothermal) to serve as a foundation for national energy policy. In the United States, even with the best use of conservation, energy efficiency and renewables, the combination of these various “alternatives” will not become a substitute for fossil fuels for a very long time.

In a thoughtful article in the New York Law Journal on January 2, 2014, titled  “Countries Approach Fracking With Interest and Caution,” Stephen L. Kass, makes the case that natural gas from hydraulic fracturing should be an important component of a comprehensive energy strategy, both in the United States and abroad.  According to Kass, fracking is attractive to: (1) economists seeking to stimulate development; (2) national security officials seeking independence from unreliable oil suppliers; and (3) environmentalists who seek to avoid runaway GHG emissions, particularly from developing countries.

In the United States, fracking now accounts for a staggering 25% of domestic natural gas (a figure expected to rise to 50% by 2035). In addition to lowering energy costs, according to Kass, fracking is widely credited with reducing U.S. “carbon intensity” and GHG emissions.

Fracking places the environmental community between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand, environmentalists recognize that fracking offers enormous environmental benefits in terms of reduced GHGs. On the other hand, environmentalists continue to be concerned that fracking fluids may contaminate precious water sheds.

Therefore, it is the goal of the environmental community that the amount of water used in fracking be minimized through recycling, that double-walled drill shafts and other controls be effectively utilized to minimize fugitive methane releases, and that waste fluids be adequately treated on-site before being recycled, discharged to water treatment plants or re-injected. The oil and gas industry’s refusal to disclose the composition of its fracking fluids has become an unnecessary distraction from these key environmental concerns.

In the long run, environmental concerns are likely to be largely addressed by increased and more effective regulation and by self-policing by industry. From the standpoint of providing an inexpensive fuel to tens of millions of American homeowners, the stakes are simply too high for environmentalists, who support fracking with these reservations, to concede defeat. As industry continues to demonstrate that fracking can be performed in a safe and environmentally sound manner, opposition to the practice will most likely diminish.

For more cutting edge commentary on developing issues, visit Toxic Tort Litigation Blog by William A. Ruskin of Epstein Becker & Green.

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