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‘Fury Over Fracking’

In response to:

Fury Over Fracking from the April 21, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Thank you for the considered and comprehensive discussion of my book The Green and the Black in Tim Flannery’s review “Fury Over Fracking” [NYR, April 21]. There are small things to quibble with: I think that a decision to structure a book’s chapter around Gasland is a long leap from being “infuriated” by or “obsessed” with the film; and when Flannery declares it a “remarkable admission” that other people in the oil and gas business believe “solar and wind are liberal charity cases,” it would be less remarkable if he didn’t try to pass that opinion off as mine. But I am writing on three of Flannery’s points that could leave readers with wrong impressions on the future of energy.

First, Flannery takes the fact that “the suitability of US shales for fracking has recently been found to be very varied” and implies that the shale revolution is transitory, like a gold rush. But the fact that the “cores” of shales are better than the fringes means only that some make money at lower prices and others at higher prices. It says nothing about how much additional shale oil and gas can be extracted, and significant volume growth is expected at reasonable prices in almost every forecast.

Second, Flannery privileges solar and wind when it comes to improvements in productivity and in cost declines, over shale oil and gas, ignoring that all the sources of energy are subject to market forces (e.g., Chinese oversupply of solar panels) and technological conditions to improvements (such as practical limits to wind turbine heights)—the sum total of which will determine the relative costs. By discussing the economies of scale in manufacturing instead of the facts of shale extraction, Flannery does not inform readers that shale oil and gas extraction is more like manufacturing than traditional oil and gas extraction, an important point when explaining the real productivity improvement of shales.

Third, in the critical question of whether burning gas instead of coal for electricity generation reduces greenhouse gas emissions, Flannery highlights the complexities of the question and then leaves the reader with the conclusion from one study that gas will either have a modest 2 percent positive effect in reducing emissions or actually increase emissions by 11 percent by 2050. The quizzical (and by Flannery unexamined) nature of that conclusion—one flying in the face of the 9 percent reduction in US carbon dioxide emissions during the seven years ending in 2014, with further reduction likely already occurring—led me to the study’s thirty-five-year forecasts. They contain many arguable assumptions, two in particular that bear noting: that abundant natural gas will take away market share from renewables (something the rest of Flannery’s review would lead one to scoff at); and that “lower natural gas prices accelerate economic activity” (necessary context for understanding why shale gas could lead to higher emissions).

My book is explicit about the shale revolution’s mixed and sometimes negative impact on the fight against climate change, particularly by making oil cheaper for longer. And I greatly admire Tim Flannery’s written works and passionate advocacy at the vanguard of the fight against climate change. But his efforts in this review to chip away at the potential positive impacts of shale gas can lead readers to dismiss its effectiveness as an instrument in the twin challenges of our time: to provide more poor people with more energy to achieve a better standard of living, and to decarbonize our energy sources before climate change becomes catastrophic. Those challenges are difficult enough; they will require hard choices, imperfect solutions, and “an energy miracle,” as Bill Gates says. But we need to look at each imperfect solution clearly, not cast for statistics and conditions to dismiss evidence of good already being done.

Gary Sernovitz
New York City

To the Editors:

Tim Flannery’s “Fury Over Fracking” [NYR, April 21] somehow managed not to mention earthquakes. He clearly does not live in Oklahoma, which had a preponderance of the over 2,300 M3 or higher earthquakes in the central US between 2009 and 2016; before 1975 there were hardly any. See earthquake.usgs.gov/research/induced/.

Judy Roitman
Lawrence, Kansas

Tim Flannery replies:

I beg to disagree with Gary Sernovitz on most of the “quibbles” he raises. There is nothing in my review that attributes to Sernovitz the opinion that solar and wind are liberal charity cases. Nor do I feel that I have overstated his response to Gasland. Moreover, in my review I acknowledge Sernovitz’s opinion that, when it comes to economies of scale, fracking is more akin to manufacturing than conventional gas production, although I consider that fracking is far behind manufacturing in that regard.

Sernovitz is skeptical of the study I cite on the impact of natural gas on future total global greenhouse gas emissions. He is entitled to his view, but it should be noted that the study was published in Nature, the world’s leading science journal, and, as far as I know, no more comprehensive recent study exists.

Finally, I do not dispute the fact that fracking has lessened dependence on coal in the US. The question over which Sernovitz and I differ is the role of fracking in the future. Sernovitz believes that fracking (and other sources of gas) will provide a global bridge to a distant clean energy future. I think it more likely, based on the entire content of his book (rather than merely the patchiness of shale productivity in the US, as he asserts), that the fracking revolution bears all the hallmarks of a gold rush, and that renewables will outcompete fossil fuels in the relatively near future.

I thank Judy Roitman for her timely reminder of the impact that the injection of used fracking fluids into sediments has had on earthquake frequency in parts of the US. I was aware of the possibility that fracking activities were triggering earthquakes, but unfortunately the definitive study that she refers to was only published on April 6, 2016, too late to be included in my review.