The Economist has a decent piece up about natural gas fracking, Shale gas: Fracking great.
I say only “decent” because it underplays the side effects of fracking, like ground water contamination, the spread of who-knows-what chemicals, etc., but it does end with this graf:
By itself, switching to gas will not reduce emissions to anything like the levels required to avoid a high risk of serious climate change. This will take much crunchier policies to boost renewable-energy sources and other clean technologies—starting with a strong price on carbon emissions, through a market-based mechanism or, preferably, a carbon tax. Governments are understandably unwilling to take these steps in straitened times. Yet they should plan to do so; and in the coming years cheap gas could help free cash for more investment in low-carbon technologies. Otherwise the bonanza would be squandered.
Which leads me to a point I’ve been trying to hammer home for some time: Natural gas is the biggest single climate challenge facing the developed countries, just as coal is the biggest single challenge in the developing countries. (Oil is a big deal in both places, because of existing infrastructure in one camp and quickly developing and growing infrastructure in the other.)
In both developed and developing countries we’re seeing the same basic dynamic play out: We have access to a cheap fuel that we shouldn’t be extracting and burning, but we can’t (yet) find the maturity and self-restraint to stop ourselves. We can’t even take the obvious steps needed — like imposing a price on carbon emissions or ending subsidies for fossil fuel use — that would force economic actors to value appropriately the future impacts of burning fossil fuels now. So we continue to accelerate towards the cliff edge in our fossil fueled vehicles, ignoring the pleas of scientists and environmentalists in the back seat telling us that this drunken joy ride will most certainly not have a happy ending unless we take some pretty drastic action.
This is economics in its most bare knuckle and brutal form, a classic conflict between the hemispheres of our collective brain, with the left side saying we should plan for the future and not sabotage it, and the right falling in love with the endless parade of shiny objects available now for a low, low price (negative externalities and batteries not included).
Which, in turn, brings me back to an example of terminology, in this case from economics, causing more harm than good when it’s used in discussions with lay people. I’m talking about the habit of referring to the lack of a market price on carbon emissions as a “market failure”. The strict definition of the term — a market not delivering the optimal well being of all participants for any given set of available goods and services — is so detached from reality as to be useless. We are surrounded by examples of market failures in the form of people not getting enough to eat or needed medical care while others are buying McMansions and room-size SUVs, to cite perhaps the most obvious example. The problem is not that the market’s lack of producing a spontaneous price on carbon emissions is or isn’t an example of “market failure”; by the accepted definition, it clearly is. The difficulty arises when people who are not steeped in the terminology hear “market failure” and leap to conclusions about how one should fix it. Some will no doubt see this as yet another chance to complain about “government interfering in the free market” and try to campaign for even less regulation in a country, like the US, that should have learned its lessons long ago about giving the invisible hand too much room to make a fist and take a swing at people. (Savings and Loan mess, ENRON, or mortgage implosion, anyone?) And others will simply assume that all we need is some minor tweaking around the edges to “fine tune” the market. This is nonsense. We desperately need a price on carbon emissions, as it’s the surest way to tilt the marketplace away from emitting carbon and toward cleaner technologies.
Of course, in a country like the US, where we’re bombarded by media ad campaigns for “clean coal” and “clean natural gas”, and proposing anything as simple and (dare I say it) fair as James Hansen’s flat carbon tax with 100% per capita refund, would be political suicide, this is all, in effect moot. We seem determined to hang on to our business as usual practices right up to the moment when reality rips them from our sweaty hands in the form of an EF5 hurricane devastating Miami or Houston (or Washington DC or New York City or …) or a piece of ice the size of Spain breaking off of Antarctica. Still, we have to start somewhere, and turning away from a further embrace of cheap fossil fuels would be an excellent and necessary first step.