Energy & Environment

EPA’s Clean Power Plan encourages expansion of fracking

Recently, Republican Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) began an inquiry into whether the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had unlawful participation in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule-makings, including the proposed Clean Power Plan.

If true, the Vitter/Issa allegation is not the real scandal. Rather, the real question is how the NRDC, a major environmental group — allegedly granted unprecedented access to the EPA’s inner circle — drafted a proposed regulation that promotes clean air (through the reduction of carbon, but not other greenhouse gases) potentially at the expense of clean water to drink.

The Clean Power Plan rule looks more like a victory for the shale gas industry than for environmental groups like the NRDC.

Let me explain.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan aims to reduce climate change by reducing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The rule uses four building blocks that give states the ability to determine how to reduce power plant carbon emissions. Block 2 allows “redisptach,” a term that means converting coal-fired plants to plants powered with natural gas.

{mosads}Natural gas has become cheap and abundant with the advance of shale gas extraction (what the public calls fracking). The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that, currently, about 40 percent of natural gas produced in the U.S. is drilled using hydraulic fracturing; and the percent of fracked gas is expected to rise to about 53 percent or more by 2040 even if the Clean Power Plan does not go into effect.

Which brings me back to problems with the proposed Clean Power Plan. First, shale gas extraction has been correlated with water pollution. Studies show that the shale gas extraction process has led to numerous instances of water contamination in drinking water sources, mostly due to well-casing failures and disposal of flowback water. Methane concentrations are an average of 17 times higher in shallow groundwater drinking wells in sites near shale gas extraction than in wells with no drilling. Pennsylvania issued 243 water supply determination letters “where DEP [the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] determined that a private water supply was impacted by oil and gas activities.”

Second, the shale gas extraction process inevitably causes methane emissions to go into the air, another potent greenhouse gas. So reducing carbon (from coal-fired power plants), but increasing methane (by increasing the need for shale gas extraction) may do little to reduce the pace of climate change.

Why focus on carbon to the exclusion of methane?

Clues can be found in the statement of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at Georgetown University’s LEAD Conference: “Tackling climate change is an opportunity to ‘invigorate’ the U.S. energy sector.”

The redispatch provision of the Clean Power Plan not only encourages conversion of coal-fired plants to natural gas; the provision will create a permanent national dependency on fracked gas. Making a decision under the Clean Air Act to heavily invest in shale gas is premature since the EPA has not yet completed the congressionally mandated study on the impact of shale gas extraction on drinking water.

Replacing coal-fired power plants with plants fired by natural gas makes sense only if we are sure that the reduction in carbon emissions does not come at the expense of clean, fresh water to drink.

Geltman is the author of 17 books on environmental and natural resources policy and an associate professor and program director for Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health and the Urban School of Public Health at Hunter College.

Tags carbon emissions Clean Power Plan Climate change Environmental Protection Agency EPA fracking Gina McCarthy Hydraulic fracturing Natural Resources Defense Council NRDC Shale gas
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