Fracking and the Climate Debate

Natural gas isn’t holding us back from a carbon-free future. In fact, it may help us get there.

By Michael Levi

Tagged Climate ChangeEnvironmentalismnatural gas

In 2007, as alarm about climate change escalated and environmentalists struggled to stop construction of a wave of new coal-fired power plants, the Sierra Club forged an unusual alliance. Over the next three years, the venerable environmental group received $26 million from executives at Chesapeake Energy to fund its “Beyond Coal” campaign. At the time, Chesapeake was a leading force in the still-obscure shale gas industry, which was just beginning what would be a meteoric rise. In hindsight, the odd couple—Oklahoma oilmen and California greens—seemed destined for divorce. But the underlying logic of their arrangement appeared sound. Because natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, if the United States could generate more electricity with it instead of coal, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would fall and natural gas companies would profit, delivering wins for everyone involved.

The Sierra Club was far from alone among environmental advocates in its enthusiasm for the boom in shale gas produced by fracking. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., writing in the Financial Times in 2009, declared that switching from coal to gas “is President Barack Obama’s most obvious first step towards saving our planet.” Joe Romm, a prominent climate advocate at the Center for American Progress, returned from a gathering of geologists that year to declare that natural gas “may be the single biggest game changer for climate action in the next two decades.” Such views were common.

And then it all fell apart. Kennedy now calls shale gas a “catastrophe.” Romm, tweaking claims that gas can be a “bridge” to a carbon-free future, now dubs it “a bridge to nowhere.” The Sierra Club, which broke ties with Chesapeake in 2010, now touts its “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign with the slogan “Dirty, Dangerous, and Run Amok.” The Environmental Defense Fund, a lonely voice in the environmental community in favor of gas as a part of a solution to climate change, has been attacked for “greenwashing.” At colleges across the country, campaigns are demanding divestment not only from coal and oil but also natural gas.

Many of those who are most passionate about stopping climate change applaud this turn as an unmitigated victory for scientific and political realism—a triumph over naïve hope that a fossil fuel could ever help mitigate climate change. But their celebration is misplaced and dangerous. Shale gas is no panacea, but with the right policies to protect communities where gas is produced and to harness the fuel as part of a broader climate strategy, it can play a critical role in confronting global warming. Without shale gas, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would be higher, our climate policies would be weaker, and the odds of slashing future carbon dioxide emissions and meeting U.S. climate goals would be greatly reduced.

The turn against shale gas rests on three beliefs that have calcified into conventional wisdom among many environmental advocates. The first is that shale gas development causes massive damage to communities and the local environment—regardless of what regulations are put in place. This sets a daunting bar for any climate strategy that includes shale gas production. The second is that gas is no better than coal when it comes to climate change—at least not without big changes to the way gas is produced—and might even increase greenhouse gas emissions. This undercuts any imperative to wrestle with trade-offs between local risks and climate benefits from gas. The third is that renewable energy has made such rapid progress that a shift to a zero-carbon energy future is imminent. This makes natural gas unnecessary, and potentially a threat to a complete and speedy transition away from fossil fuels.

But each of these is a myth or half-truth. Strict rules and smart planning can safeguard communities. If policy drives natural gas to displace coal, the result can be much lower emissions. And, while renewables have made big strides, the biggest beneficiary of a setback to natural gas would, for now, still be coal.

Each of these realities, in turn, points to an essential element of a wise strategy for exploiting natural gas to tackle climate change. Policy-makers should strengthen state and federal rules for shale gas development, and boost programs that help communities manage development sensibly. They should pursue policies that are newly enabled, economically and politically, by inexpensive natural gas—inevitably a mix of regulation under existing authority with, if possible, new legislation—to boost natural gas in place of coal while minimizing collateral damage to the climate. And they should redouble efforts to subsidize innovation in zero-carbon sources, including renewable energy, so that these can increasingly take the place of both gas and coal burned without capturing and sequestering their carbon dioxide emissions, driving U.S. power plant emissions close to zero.

How Gas (Sort of) Killed Coal

On February 26, 2007, an unusual group of financiers and environmentalists announced the largest leveraged buyout in history, a $45 billion acquisition of Texas Utilities (TXU). For years, several environmental groups had been suing to stop TXU from building 11 new coal-fired power plants, a threat that had scared off potential buyers. As part of the 2007 takeover deal, TXU would build only three of those giants, and the environmental groups would back off their campaign. “It is a big step forward for the state of Texas and for the American energy economy as a whole,” declared Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major participant in the talks.

Today, TXU is in bankruptcy, and no environmental group would imagine agreeing to a deal that countenanced even a single new coal-fired facility. The biggest reason is simple: Natural gas has killed new coal-fired power.

The climate advantage of natural gas over coal is simple: Generating electricity with gas instead of coal cuts carbon dioxide emissions roughly in half. U.S. natural gas production peaked in 1973, and swung up and down over the next three decades, but by 2005, it appeared to be in terminal decline. Natural gas prices were projected to rise steadily above historical levels, hurting the economy; by the decade’s end, the United States would become dependent on large-scale imports, threatening its national security as well. Testifying before Congress in 2005, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned of a natural gas industry in North America “already operating at close to capacity and [unable] to import large quantities of far cheaper, liquefied natural gas,” and called for expanded imports.

Scarce natural gas appeared to be a boon for coal-fired power. Between 1999 and 2005, the United States had added the equivalent of 200 nuclear power plants’ worth of natural gas-fueled electricity plants, even as U.S. coal-fired capacity actually fell. But by 2007, with natural gas prices rising, the U.S. government predicted a reversal: Over the next two decades, coal-fired power plants would be built at a furious pace, while natural gas would stagnate. This would be disastrous for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: By 2030, it was predicted, the fleet of coal-fired power plants would belch three billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, massively raising U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

But beneath Texas’s Barnett Shale, a revolution was brewing. In the early 2000s, a handful of drillers figured out how to profitably extract natural gas from shale, dense rock buried thousands of feet underground. They drilled down and then, turning 90 degrees, horizontally through thin but expansive layers of shale rock. Then they pumped water, sand, and chemicals into the resulting well—and natural gas flowed back to the surface. This last step—hydraulic fracturing in industry parlance, “fracking” for short—gave the process its now-household name.

Between 2005 and 2014, annual U.S. natural gas production increased by 36 percent, with shale gas production rising even more than total U.S. natural gas output did (other sources of U.S. gas continued to decline). In large part as a result, from 2008 to 2012, the price of natural gas dropped by a whopping 62 percent. Since the dawn of electric power, coal has been the largest source of U.S. electricity, with natural gas coming in a distant second beginning around 1960. But by April 2012, with natural gas prices at rock bottom, gas-fired power came within a hair of topping coal.

American carbon dioxide emissions simultaneously plummeted. U.S. emissions had risen nearly every year for decades, and few expected the pattern to change. But in 2007, emissions peaked. By 2012, U.S. emissions were 13 percent below their 2007 high, and at their lowest level since 1994. Emissions rebounded slightly through 2014 but remained 9 percent below their high-water mark.

Analysts have debated how to divvy up credit for the plunge. The financial crisis and ensuing economic downturn have been major factors. So has a boom in renewable energy—particularly wind power—along with the steady adoption of increasingly efficient cars and trucks. But the switch from coal to gas has been critical. Between 2008 and 2012, the United States increased its electricity production from natural gas by enough to power more than 30 million typical homes. Had that electricity come from coal instead, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would have been much higher, canceling out more than a quarter of their decline.

What Gas Can and Can’t Do

When it comes to climate strategy, though, history matters far less than what natural gas might do for emissions in the future. Many—particularly those hostile to regulation—argue that cheap gas has obviated the need for climate policy. “Many federal lawmakers support President Obama in his desire to reduce carbon emissions by imposing the heavy hand of regulation,” wrote Forbes contributor Merrill Matthews in 2013. “What they consistently fail to appreciate, however, is that the free market is already curbing energy-related carbon emissions.”

This has indeed happened—but it’s hardly the whole story. Since 2012, coal-fired electricity has clawed back. In 2014, coal provided 39 percent of total U.S. electricity to natural gas’s 27 percent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent agency of the U.S. government, projects that without new policies, it will take until 2035 for natural gas to pass coal as the top source of U.S. electricity. It also projects that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, instead of decreasing, will edge up by nearly 2 percent over the next decade.

Underlying this is a troubling discovery: Merely making natural gas more abundant may do little, if anything, to curb carbon dioxide emissions. On this point, analysts are in remarkable agreement. Between 2011 and 2013, a group at Stanford brought together 14 expert teams of energy modelers to each independently simulate the impact of booming shale gas production on U.S. carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years. Half found that more shale gas ultimately meant lower emissions—but the other half found the opposite. None of the teams concluded that shale gas would do much to U.S. emissions over that time unless new energy policies were put in place.

Why? Increasing shale gas supplies does two simple things to cut emissions. It shoves aside coal for electric power generation. It also (much more modestly) replaces some gasoline and diesel in cars and trucks. But four forces push in the other direction. Cheaper gas boosts economic growth, and a bigger economy means more emissions. Low-priced gas gives an edge to industries that are heavy energy users and big emitters. It also hurts lower-carbon competitors, like renewable energy and nuclear power, just as it harms higher-carbon coal and oil. Cheaper gas also means that consumers will use more of it. Analysts consistently observe that the forces pushing in both directions mostly cancel each other out.

This kills the free-market fundamentalist dream that a thriving shale gas industry will make climate policy unnecessary. But, contrary to what environmental advocates increasingly claim, abundant shale gas can be integral to a serious climate-change policy agenda. Plentiful (and thus inexpensive) gas makes it cheaper to deliberately wean the country off of coal—which accounts for three-quarters of carbon dioxide produced in U.S. electricity generation—and thus to reduce emissions. Cheaper policies are, for the most part, politically easier to enact. Moreover, as long as a shift from coal to gas is driven by well-designed policy rather than only by markets, increased use of gas isn’t in danger of cancelling out the benefits of shifting away from coal. For example, under proposed EPA standards, U.S. power plants will need to reduce their average emissions intensity (the amount they emit to produce a unit of electricity) to government-set targets. Operators are likely to meet that goal in part by increasing their use of natural gas—and, because the standards specify how polluting the resulting electricity system is allowed to be, more use of gas shouldn’t mean higher emissions. Similarly, it would be impossible for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system to boost U.S. use of natural gas without reducing U.S. emissions.

Moreover, plentiful gas also means that, unlike in the 2000s, it is possible to replace coal with gas without making the United States dependent on natural gas imports from hostile countries such as Russia. The shale gas boom thus opens a door to more aggressive and effective climate policies—but policy-makers need to seize that chance.

The boom also changes the politics of energy production in a way that should help emissions-cutting efforts. During the cap-and-trade debates of the late 2000s, political strategists regularly pored over maps showing the coal-producing states that would be harmed by any serious climate plan, with West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Illinois invariably among them. Shale gas, together with air pollution rules, has slashed the value of U.S. coal companies, with the share prices of many leading firms falling by 90 percent or more from their highs; in 2013 alone, more than 10 percent of coal-mining jobs were eliminated. At the same time, another set of maps has emerged, showing the many states that would benefit economically from greater shale gas production. Politicians who campaign on climate policy that boosts gas at the expense of coal in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio—as well as any national candidate who needs to win votes in those states—will have a compelling story to tell that goes well beyond the need to confront climate change. They will also need to advance policies that help people in coal-producing communities who are hurt by the shift away from coal—but with gas already edging out coal, that will be important even without new climate policies.

What About Renewable Energy?

One can tell a stunning growth story for renewable energy, too. U.S. wind and solar capacity have more than tripled since 2008. Last year, more people got jobs installing solar panels than working on oil and gas rigs. Climate policy that encourages wind and solar to replace coal would also boost jobs in those sectors—and, since much of the United States is either windy or sunny, the visible benefits would be broad.

Indeed, many climate advocates argue that renewable energy has become so compelling that natural gas isn’t needed: Either the market alone or government policy can replace coal with renewables and slash U.S. emissions without the problems that fracking entails. They warn that by sinking hundreds of billions of dollars into new natural gas infrastructure instead of expanding renewable power, the United States could lock itself into a carbon-based future, making it more difficult for zero-carbon energy to eventually muscle in. And, perhaps most damning, they argue that because natural gas systems leak methane—a potent greenhouse gas—a shift from coal to gas could actually increase global warming. These three arguments, unsurprisingly, scare most people who contemplate the possibility of using natural gas to confront climate change. But each of these arguments is overstated or misplaced.

Several studies have contended that the world could slash its carbon dioxide emissions using only renewable energy. The most prominent is a series of papers by a team of Stanford professors. They claim that the United States could ensure that all new electricity-generating plants use wind, solar, or hydropower by 2020 and that the entire U.S. energy system could run on them by 2050, all without much change to energy costs. Perhaps this will turn out to be true: One of the biggest lessons of the shale gas boom is that predicting the future of energy with high confidence is foolish. But the all-renewables studies entail their own heroic assumptions. The Stanford papers, for example, assume that renewable energy costs will crater, electric vehicles will become the norm, and a massive network of hydrogen storage facilities and fueling stations will emerge at minimal cost. While those advances may happen, we certainly shouldn’t bet on them.

What about the prospect that, if the United States increases its reliance on natural gas, it will be difficult to move beyond it to a zero-carbon future? Part of this worry about “carbon lock-in” is economic. Billions of dollars spent upfront on natural gas infrastructure will give gas an entrenched cost advantage over renewables. That is certainly the case for coal: Most of the cost of coal-fired power is incurred when power plants are built; since the cost of continuing to operate them is minimal, it is difficult to push these plants aside. But the cost of gas-fired power is dominated by gas-producing wells that require continuous investment. Indeed, between 1998 and 2004, the United States built enough gas-fired power plants to deliver more than twice as much electricity as the entire fleet of U.S. nuclear power plants. But by 2005, with coal inexpensive and the economics of natural gas no longer compelling, almost 60 percent of that capacity was left unused, even when electricity use was highest. Companies will abandon gas-based infrastructure again if an economically attractive alternative emerges.

The more compelling concern is political: Once companies and communities have built businesses and livelihoods around natural gas, they’ll use their clout to maintain the status quo, just as coal-producing states and companies have tried to do. The right response to this, however, is not to leave the system as it currently is. (It is difficult to imagine how a gas-dependent system could be any more entrenched than the coal-dependent one it would replace.) Instead, policy-makers ought to craft policies that reward emissions cuts regardless of the technologies that produce them—and, at the same time, adopt policies that drive down the cost of zero-carbon energy. These include funding for research and development in early-stage technologies, in addition to subsidies (including mandates or special tax treatment) that help bring them to commercial scale, allowing new and more efficient business models to emerge as well. Then, as carbon-free sources become less expensive, broad-based policy that rewards emissions reductions will increasingly advantage these more climate-friendly fuels.

The final problem is methane. A few years ago, energy industry observers began worrying that massive amounts of methane were leaking from shale operations. Some concluded that this made gas worse for climate change than coal, obviating any need to think through trade-offs between climate benefits and local damages. Others were more cautious but still concluded that gas could only help slow climate change if methane leaks were drastically reduced. Many of the early and extreme estimates of methane leaks have stood the test of time poorly, but ensuing studies—notably a series sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund—have revealed that methane leaks are, indeed, often substantial. (I am an unpaid member of the scientific advisory panel for one of those studies.) There is now no doubt that there are major opportunities to reduce climate change by slashing methane emissions.

But the idea that gas might be worse for climate change than coal is no longer persuasive. As Daniel Schrag, head of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, has argued, “Leakage of methane is not as important as some have argued because its short lifetime [in the atmosphere] limits its impact on anthropogenic climate change.” The result, he concludes, is that “even if shale gas production results in large methane emissions, burning natural gas is still much better for the climate system than burning coal.” In a 2013 article in the journal Climatic Change, I modeled a variety of scenarios in which natural gas was used as part of a transition from coal to zero-carbon fuels, and varied the level of methane leakage among them. I found that while more methane leakage boosted short-term warming, it had little impact on peak temperatures—the ultimate metric of climate change, and the best indicator of whether the planet might pass dangerous climate thresholds. And in every case, keeping coal made things worse. Casual observers often worry that methane leaks, through their powerful near-term impact, might propel the world past “tipping points” lurking in the near future. The sad reality, though, is that any near-term tipping points that might be crossed in a world where methane leaks are large will still be crossed if those leaks are eliminated, though perhaps a few years later. The only way to avoid these sorts of dangers is to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

The bottom line is that the gas boom has created a real opportunity to curb U.S. emissions. Policy-makers should take advantage of it to shift U.S. power generation steadily away from conventional coal. “Clean Power Plan” regulations proposed by the EPA, which require each state to reduce its emissions but leave it to them to determine how, are a start—but, if shale gas supplies continue to be relatively inexpensive, the regulations could be tightened while still delivering benefits that exceed their costs. Ideally, Congress would pass legislation that rewards emissions reductions, whether through a carbon tax, a broad-based standard, or some other way. In the immediate future, though, the best hope is that Congress will simply let the EPA do its job.

A Faustian Bargain?

No amount of climate benefit, however, will make a push for natural gas wise if producing it turns out to be too dangerous. New York state captures the dilemma starkly. In December 2014, after a four-year moratorium on shale gas development, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—who has supported a range of policies aimed at reducing emissions—declared a de facto ban on shale gas development in New York. “I don’t want my kids living [near shale wells], and I don’t want any New Yorker’s kids living there,” said Cuomo.

Indeed, the reality is that, just like any heavy industrial activity, shale gas development poses real public health risks. And, like any other risky industrial activity, it needs to be properly regulated. Both the shale gas industry and people who care about climate change have a common interest in getting regulation right. Smart policy will have four characteristics: It will be based on lessons learned from the wide range of regulatory efforts—some successes and some failures—already underway; it will have comprehensive measurement and aggressive disclosure at its core; it will be grounded in the states but include minimum standards set at the federal level; and it will go beyond traditional environmental rules to also make sure that development is properly integrated into the communities where it occurs.

Identifying and fixing the biggest threats to air and water—the core of any traditional regulatory regime—is actually the easiest part of getting this right. One good step would be to implement the 22 “Golden Rules of Gas” developed by the International Energy Agency in 2012, which cover areas ranging from air pollution due to leaky equipment to avoiding cracks in wells that could lead to water pollution, and are based on lessons learned from regulation and practices in different countries. Another would be to leverage the work of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a coalition that includes Chevron, Shell, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Clean Air Task Force (another respected NGO) and that has developed voluntary rules for development that could easily be made mandatory. The federal government should also take advantage of the fact that some shale gas resources are on federal land to implement gold-standard protections there—a step that the Obama Administration took in March. Such a step could yield insights into what might be effective nationwide. Shale gas production has also added another risk that needs to be aggressively addressed: seismic activity, or, more colloquially, (mostly) small earthquakes that appear to be associated with disposal of wastewater in “injection wells.” Building on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, companies should be subjected to regulation that requires careful monitoring of any tremors generated by their operations and rapid steps to stop dangerous behavior that’s detected. Injection wells that are observed to generate unacceptable levels of seismic activity should be shut down. Following the Texas Supreme Court’s recent example, the burden of proof should be on producers to demonstrate that their wells aren’t causing harm.

Complementing any initial set of rules should be regular measurement of the impact of shale gas development and detailed disclosure of drilling activities. Better knowledge of environmental conditions both before and after drilling would improve understanding of the impact of development, enabling better regulation and improved company practices. And more rigorous measurement, funded by government, of the environmental performance of key drilling technologies would help too.

One particularly acute need is to improve transparency surrounding the chemical composition of the fluids that companies use to hydraulically fracture wells, but do not always disclose. There have been no established cases of dangerous contamination where these fracking fluids have seeped from underground to contaminate water supplies, and there are solid geological reasons to doubt that the risks here are large, but incomplete disclosure—as well as other cases of serious water contamination resulting from poor handling of wastewater—has unquestionably sapped public confidence in development. There have also been cases where methane has leaked from gas production into water supplies, with companies sometimes resisting responsibility, further fanning suspicions.

More recently, evidence has emerged pointing to likely migration of trace quantities of fracking or drilling fluids from a poorly built Pennsylvania well into drinking water supplies. (This last incident might have been prevented by the sorts of stricter standards for well construction and integrity promoted by the International Energy Agency and the Center for Sustainable Shale Development.) Some states—notably, Colorado and Wyoming—require disclosure, and in other cases, companies do it voluntarily, but these efforts almost always have blind spots. Removing these gaps would help communities and would also reward those companies that operate with the highest standards, squeezing out less responsible competitors.

Why Federal Standards Are Needed

In fact, it may be easier to agree on what the right rules ought to be than on who should set and enforce them. Industry has mostly pressed for state-level regulation and resisted federal rules. Companies have typically argued that large state-to-state variations in geological conditions and social attitudes toward development make state regulators best positioned to make the trade-offs and design choices that any rule-making inevitably requires. Environmental groups have mostly pressed for federal regulation, seeing it as inevitably stronger, though some have concluded that states offer a better prospect for quick progress than the often sclerotic federal government does.
The industry case for state-level regulation often makes sense: For example, rules for water disposal in Ohio might not work in another state where geological conditions are different. And if some Texans want to accept more local air pollution than Pennsylvanians do, it is unclear why federal regulators should overrule them. But companies’ desire to be regulated by the states rather than by the EPA is often grounded in less principled motivations. Many states have fewer regulatory resources available than the federal government does, which can make enforcement of state regulations less stringent; some states may also impose smaller penalties than the EPA would.

Shale gas companies could actually benefit from some uniformity in rules. The industry can be highly mobile, shifting drilling rigs and pressure pumps from one state to another as opportunities variously emerge and recede; consistent regulations can make that process smoother. More importantly, when it comes to public acceptance, the states are far from independent. A major accident in Louisiana could sour Californians on shale gas development, even if the two states have different regulatory approaches; in the case of seismic activity, tremors in one state can be triggered by wastewater disposal in another. The fact that the ability to develop shale gas is important to delivering on national climate goals also argues for not allowing states to take excessive risks that would jeopardize that opportunity, just as states aren’t allowed to reduce homeland security efforts at ports for parochial economic reasons. All this means that, where it is technically feasible and more effective than using state-only rules, federal standards for safe drilling should be set, with states free to outperform them.

The final piece in the policy puzzle goes beyond traditional environmental issues: Equally important to tackling threats to air and water is ensuring that shale gas development is intelligently integrated into state and local development plans. The downside of such projects can be felt immediately, as nonstop truck traffic rips up roads, police forces cope with increased crime, and hospitals see increased emergency room traffic—well before drillers turn a large profit and start boosting state income tax rolls. Here the federal government can play a facilitating role, convening state and local policy-makers to learn from each other and providing a repository of best practices. But ultimately, responsibility for developing and implementing such policies will need to be at the state and local levels.

An Uneasy Alliance

No strategy for U.S. natural gas will or should be crafted with only the environment in mind. Shale gas has boosted the U.S. economy during an otherwise weak stretch, even if its economic benefits are often exaggerated and unevenly felt. It has also been a geopolitical windfall, sparing the United States from having to become a significant natural gas importer (even if its potential as a weapon against U.S. adversaries is regularly overblown). But, setting economic and geopolitical issues aside, from a purely environmental standpoint, putting shale gas on firm regulatory ground and using its abundance to transform U.S. climate policy is an opportunity that policy-makers, building on what the Obama Administration has already done, ought to seize.

Not that the politics are simple. There is no real prospect of returning to the days when the Sierra Club teamed up with natural gas drillers to present a remarkably united front. Any future alliance between industry and people who care about the environment will inevitably be tentative, riven with suspicion, and punctuated by intense conflict. People who prioritize the environment reasonably fear that attempts to find common ground with industry will leave them with increased shale gas drilling but no more aggressive climate policy. And it may indeed turn out, when we look back in 20 years, that renewable energy makes such large and rapid gains that shale gas will have been relatively unimportant to meeting climate goals—after all, if there is one thing we’ve learned from the shale gas boom, it is that energy developments are unpredictable.

On the other side, industry leaders who might be friendly in principle fear ending up with climate policy that carves out so much special treatment for renewable energy and energy efficiency that gas sees no gains—and worry that, by supporting efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, they will alienate their traditional Republican supporters at the same time. Indeed, many politicians who support shale gas development are ideologically anti-regulation—so they will oppose stricter environmental rules along with policy efforts to harness shale gas as a climate tool, even if industry would benefit from both.

But betting entirely on renewables or nuclear power, or treating all fossil fuels as the enemy, is dangerous. These approaches could easily leave the country saddled with massive dependence on coal-fired electricity—with all the public health and climate damage that entails. This is the real alternative to the difficult work of making sure shale gas development is done right and harnessing it to help transform U.S. emissions. It is an alternative that no one should be willing to risk.

Read more about Climate ChangeEnvironmentalismnatural gas

Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future.

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