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March 11, 2013

Nordhaus and Shellenberger: Ad hominem Attack on Fracking Opponents

Neil Leary, March 11, 2013

By Neil Leary


Michael Shellenberger, who visited us earlier this semester, recently co-authored with Ted Nordhaus an article “Fractivists for Global Warming”.  The article asserts that NIMBYism by “celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Sean Lenon, Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Mario Batali, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon” have caused the national environmental movement to reverse its support for natural gas as a bridge to zero-carbon energy, and kept shale drilling out of New York state. Nordhaus and Shellenberger ascribe opposition to shale gas development of these ‘fraktivists’ to “what matters most to them . . . the view from their solar-plated eco-compounds, not the potentially catastrophic impact of global warming on the planet.”

Beware those who resort to ad hominem attacks. The disparaged motivations of fracking opponents, claimed but almost certainly not known or knowable to Nordhaus and Shellenberger, are irrelevant to the argument.

There are valid arguments both for and against expanding development of unconventional natural gas through the use of hydrologic fracturing. Spewing venom at one side or the other may get you on Fox News, but it doesn’t build the understanding or trust that should be the basis of good public policy.

Natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel than coal, whether measured in carbon or conventional air pollutants. Displacing coal with natural gas for generating electricity can be a bridge to a low carbon future. But absent willingness in the national debate to commit seriously to other steps needed for a low carbon future (e.g. support for EPA to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants), shale gas builds a bridge to a world of >650 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, which is beyond what many consider needed to safeguard against catastrophic climate change. Intelligent, ethical people can disagree on the best course of action for the climate.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger dismiss the social, health and environmental impacts of gas extraction and transport in the places and communities where fracking for natural gas takes place.  Yet, as outlined by Frances Beineke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, natural gas fracking poses significant risks (see her Senate testimony). How severe the impacts are will depend on whether appropriate safeguards are put in place, and adequate resources provided to enforce them.

Assurances are offered by the gas industry, and often by legislators and governors, that development will be done responsibly and negative effects minimized. But the record in Pennsylvania is mixed at best. Meanwhile, the gas industry lobbies heavily for, and public officials too often acquiesce on, limited oversight and regulation, continued exemption from monitoring requirements of drinking water, clean water, storm water and air quality laws, weak laws on reporting of the chemicals used in fracking liquids, and limiting taxes that could be used to mitigate harm to paltry amounts.

The moratorium on shale gas development in New York is continuing not because of celebrity ‘fraktivists.’ It continues because many citizens of New York state look across the state line at what is happening in Pennsylvania, and at the bad behavior of many of the gas developers, and are distrustful that development in their state, once started, would proceed responsibly and safely.

If Nordhaus and Shellenberger really want to overcome opposition to gas development, they should aim their criticisms at the gas industry and advise them to change their tune: agree to make shale gas development subject to all relevant parts of the clean water, safe drinking water and clean air acts; cooperate with state government to put in place rigorous monitoring and enforcement; and support taxes on gas that are large enough to effectively mitigate the adverse impacts of their activities. Asking that appropriate safeguards be put in place is not NIMBYism. It’s just reasonable and fair.

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