2019: A Fracking Shame

It’s been decades now since NRDC started sounding a warning bell about oil and gas development—from the greenhouse gas emissions to the drinking water contamination to the health impacts and more, the scientific evidence of fossil fuel harms has only mounted. This year, there was yet more proof.

As my colleague Sheryl Carter details, natural gas is one of the biggest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions growth both in the United States and globally. She explains how more gas power plants were built last year than renewable energy facilities. What we don’t use here at home is planned for export around the world.

The U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of both oil and gas, producing even more than Saudi Arabia. Some experts have projected that we will double our fossil fuel production in the years to come. The U.S. is still building and planning new oil pipelines and new fracked gas pipelines. Some of the oil and gas is destined for domestic use, but the U.S. is exporting more and more overseas to Europe, east Asia, and south Asia, and more export terminals are still being built.

Much of this oil and gas will be used for energy, but it is also the feedstock for new plastics and other petrochemicals. “Ethane crackers” are plants where fossil fuels are broken down into the components of plastic and the industry is planning to invest over $200 billion on new U.S. ethane cracker projects. As with oil and gas, much of new U.S. plastic production is destined for export. A recent report concluded that if global plastic production grows as currently planned, by 2050 plastic production and incineration will release as much greenhouse gas emissions as 615 five-hundred-megawatt coal plants. 

Every hundred billion dollars spent on new fossil fuel development or infrastructure is a hundred billion dollars that could be spent on clean energy.

When it comes to human health, the scientific evidence of the harms of oil and gas production continued to grow in 2019. For example, one study published in 2019 found that babies born to mothers living near oil and gas well sites are at higher risk of congenital heart defects.

And when it comes to climate change, I’d like to highlight two particularly important papers this year.

A paper published in the journal Biogeosciences concluded that:

“….shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.”

And in the Appalachian basin, the largest natural gas production region in the U.S., a paper published in Nature Sustainability calculated that “….shale gas production degraded air quality, resulting in 1,200 to 4,600 premature deaths (costing $2.3 billion to $61 billion) ….

In addition, the authors concluded that:

“…. natural gas production affected climate (at a cost of from $12 billion to $94 billion, depending on assumptions regarding social costs) in ways that will persist for generations to come, well beyond the period of natural gas activity in the region.”

Continuing to invest vast sums of American dollars in dirty fossil fuels is courting climate disaster at a time when we need to do everything in our power to stop it. In almost every application of oil or gas, we have a cleaner alternative; that’s the direction we should be heading.