Almost every day we hear about severe weather events—wildfires in Colorado, droughts in California, polar vortexes in Wisconsin. Often we are told it’s all our fault, that the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere by driving our cars, having a summer campfire, even when we exhale, is causing dangerous climate change. And regardless of whether the evidence supports these claims or not—we must change our ways, we are told.
With a similar claim of urgency heedless of the scientific facts, the Obama administration and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are proposing new regulations that would require existing power plants to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they emit into the atmosphere by 30 percent of their 2005 base-levels by the year 2030. The president says the United States must set an example for the rest of the world to get them to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, but what Obama and EPA boss Gina McCarthy conveniently fail to mention is that we already are doing so.
Since 2006, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen faster in the United States than in any other country on the planet. U.S. emissions are the lowest they have been since 1994, falling 13 percent between 2005 and 2013. It’s important to note that the decrease in CO2 emissions is not a result of government regulations.
The credit belongs to hydraulic fracturing, a technique for extracting oil and natural gas from rock formations thousands of feet below the ground, safely below the water table, which has made the United States the single-largest producer of natural gas in the world.
When burned to generate electricity, natural gas emits just half of the carbon dioxide that is emitted by burning coal. As hydraulic fracturing technology proliferated and natural gas became abundant in recent years, prices plummeted, and power plants began to use natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity. That is a key reason why U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are down 13 percent.
Interestingly, the Obama administration chose 2005 as the baseline year for its rule, evidently to make it appear EPA policies were responsible for reducing the CO2 emissions, when in fact the free market was the real cause. A politician taking credit for something he had nothing to do with? Who’d-a thunk it?
What Obama’s CO2 regulations will do is cause the shuttering of coal-fired power plants around the nation, meaning we will have to increase our use of hydraulic fracturing to produce the natural gas we will need to keep the lights on and the refrigerators running in our schools, hospitals, and homes.
Unfortunately, even though hydraulic fracturing has proven to be a safe and environmentally friendly way of stimulating natural gas production—earning the implicit blessing of the president and other Democrats such as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former geologist—some in the environmentalist community are using misleading scare tactics in hopes of banning the practice.
One common scare story is the claim hydraulic fracturing contaminates groundwater. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which features the government’s top geologists, has refuted that claim. It commented on a recent scientific, peer-reviewed study, stating, “This new study is important in terms of finding no significant effects on groundwater quality from shale gas development within the area of sampling.” Another study concludes the opposition’s scare scenario in which fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process rapidly migrate upward into groundwater aquifers does not even appear to be physically plausible.
The other alleged environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, including its relationship to earthquakes, likewise have been greatly exaggerated, as I documented last fall in a Heartland Institute Policy Study (Hydraulic Fracturing: A Game-Changer for Energy and Economies).
Even though hydraulic fracturing is safe for the environment and can reduce the effect of the proposed EPA regulations, the latter are unmistakably a bad policy. They will do nothing to combat climate change but will impose a heavy cost on the American people: An analysis shows the mandates would reduce future warming by .018 degrees C by 2100, are estimated to cost between $8.8 billion and $50 billion per year to implement, and would cause hundreds of thousands of people to lose their jobs.
Fortunately, hydraulic fracturing is making sufficient natural gas available to meet our national energy demands even if these unnecessary and damaging regulations become the law of the land. But we cannot afford to pass up that supply of cheap energy that can be produced in such an environmentally friendly manner. States—such as New York—that have enacted moratoria on the practice will have to turn on the gas, or we’ll all have to turn down the lights.