The anti-fracking movement has moved beyond the realm of the petty and unseemly into the ridiculous. Led by Yoko Ono, the avant-garde artist and widow of musician John Lennon, fracktivists are trying to stop construction of pipelines that would carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and the Utica Shale region in Ohio to markets in New York and New England. Designed to alleviate current bottlenecks in natural gas distribution, the new pipelines could help reduce the cost of natural gas and electricity for hundreds of thousands of households and businesses throughout the Northeast.
If there was ever any doubt, it’s now clear that the myopic anti-fracking obsession of those on the environmental fringe has far eclipsed their interest in lowering global warming emissions or ensuring the availability of reliable and affordable energy.
Despite the results of a landmark study by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) — and a plethora of other studies — that show hydraulic fracturing is being done in an environmentally safe way, anti-fracking activists claim otherwise, insisting that shale production threatens groundwater supplies and air quality. Isolated incidents are turned into epidemics, even though they’ve been effectively addressed by state regulation and improved industry operations.
And when manipulating the scientific data doesn’t work, fracktivists simply ignore the science altogether. Fear is their favorite tool. For example, fractivists have rebranded natural gas produced from America’s prolific shale formations as “fracked methane.” And to slow the shale gas boom, they’re now focusing on blocking construction of proposed natural gas pipelines.
Buoyed by the Obama administration’s inept handling of the Keystone XL pipeline decision, the anti-fracking activists believe they can create a groundswell of opposition to a number of proposed pipeline projects. Their extreme frackophobia — recently displayed in a full-page ad in The New York Times, paid for by Yoko Ono — rests on three faulty presumptions: Hydraulic fracking causes environmental damage, greater use of shale gas will exacerbate climate change, and the natural gas carried by the pipelines is not intended for American consumers but rather will go to export markets. Each of these three claims is completely baseless.
Not only has the EPA determined that hydraulic fracking poses a minimal threat to groundwater supplies but we know that shale gas has been a game-changer for cost-effectively reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. Setting aside the debate about the need for greenhouse-gas emissions reductions, greater use of natural gas in place of coal for electricity generation has been the key to driving U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions in recent years to the lowest levels since the mid-1990s, and to the lowest level on a per-capita basis since the mid-1960s.
Surging shale gas production has provided a cheap and cleaner alternative for power generation. When burned in place of coal to generate electricity, natural gas produces just half the carbon emissions. The environmental gains from natural gas — which just overtook coal in April as the leading energy source of electricity generation in the United States for the first time ever — are undeniable.
However, reaping the full benefits of the shale revolution has been hampered by infrastructure constraints. While natural gas production has jumped by 25 percent during the last five years and demand has also risen, expansion of the country’s pipeline capacity to get the natural gas to consumers has not kept pace. The result has been distribution problems in the Northeast that have caused massive spikes in natural gas prices during the coldest weeks of the winter. Indeed, natural gas prices in the past two New England winters have climbed to some of the highest levels in the world despite the region’s proximity to the prolific Marcellus shale, which is our country’s lowest-priced natural gas hub.
Newly proposed pipelines that will bring abundant gas supplies from the Marcellus Formation and the Utica Shale gas fields to the Northeast aren’t a luxury, they’re an economic necessity. The pipelines are needed both to keep energy costs affordable for residential and commercial users, and to allow the Northeast to meet its energy requirements now and in the future. And the claims by frackivists that the proposed new pipelines will serve export facilities are baseless. There are no natural gas export terminals in the Northeast nor are any being planned.
As we consider the critical need to add natural gas pipeline capacity in the Northeast, let’s hope common sense prevails, even if Yoko Ono and the fracktivists have none.
• Mark J. Perry is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of economics at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan.