Yale Holds Panel on Hydraulic Fracturing

On September 18, 2012 the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies hosted “Hydraulic Fracturing: Bridge to Clean Energy Future?,” a panel discussing the controversial drilling method. [1] The panel comprised four of the nation’s foremost authorities on the subject: John Hofmeister, CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy and former President of Shell Oil Company; Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and renowned environmental journalist; Sheila Olmstead, fellow at Resources for the Future and former Yale Professor; and James Saiers, Professor of hydrology at Yale F&ES and expert on water chemistry.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “hydro fracking,” is a drilling technique in which millions of gallons of high-pressure water, propping agent, and proprietary chemicals are forced down a well to break apart natural gas-bearing shale.  The fracking process forces some of this mixture back to the surface in the form of “flowback water.” This waste water must be either placed in injection wells or trucked to a water treatment plant.  The technique has been met with significant opposition due to the lack of scientific clarity surrounding the safety of the practice, increased public awareness, and mounting pressure to increase production from the industry.

In response to the question posed in the panel’s title, whether hydraulic fracturing is “Bridge to a Clean Energy Future,” Prof. Saiers and Ms. Olmstead contended that definitive answers would be premature.  Instead, both provided nuanced analyses regarding the relative merits and faults of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas production, underscoring the innate complexity and vast scientific uncertainty surrounding the issue.

Prof. Saiers contended that the debate over the relative costs and benefits of shale gas extraction is a “distraction” from the paramount issue: “management.” To Saiers, the reality is that “shale gas extraction will endure in areas where it occurs now and will expand to other regions.”

Shale gas is inherently neither good nor bad, he says, and the future is determined by policy choices related to the management of its extraction.   While he called the notion that shale gas extraction will provide energy independence a “myth,” he listed a series of pros and cons for the process.  “The good and bad of shale gas development walk hand in hand,” he said, and we must accept that fact.  The challenge is to minimize the negatives and encourage the positives.

Sheila Olmstead agreed with Prof. Saiers, in that she believes it is unclear whether shale gas is a “bridge to clean energy future.”  Olmstead’s contribution, however, was to further elucidated the question posited in the panel’s title, separating the broad question into smaller, and more manageable, discreet questions.

Is shale gas a bridge to low carbon future?  Here, Olmstead said that while natural gas releases fewer hydrocarbons through combustion, released methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  She further added that cheap natural gas pushes out renewable energy sources through basic economic mechanisms.  Does shale gas provide a bridge to cleaner local air?  Here, she contended that natural gas clearly beats coal.  Does it mean a bridge to reduced water pollution and truck traffic?  Olmstead highlighted the complexities of this question and concluded that any thoughtful determination would be impossible given the uncertainty involved.

Whereas Professor Saiers and Ms. Olmstead, as academics, were eager to find common ground and were cautious in their assertions, John Hofmeister and Bill McKibben were relatively combative and bold.  The two presenters occupied two archetypical roles so often seen in environmental issues: the cunning energy executive with a gift for public relations vs. the dogged environmental activist desperately trying to communicate the need for radical change in energy policy.

The gulf between these two presenters was best illustrated in their responses to the titular question; John Hofmeister contended that natural gas is not only a bridge to the future, but a “highway,” whereas Bill McKibben responded by calling it a “rickety pier out further into the wake of hydrocarbons.”

Presenting to a crowd of academics and graduate students undoubtedly largely against him, Hofmeister first acknowledged that the drilling sites themselves are “very dirty,” likening witnessing a drilling operation to the distaste one would experience if watching the start-to-finish production of a hamburger.  However, in what was perhaps the most memorable quote of the night, he then boldly asserted that there was “more engineering, more risk abatement, more time, human capital, human ingenuity in a frack job than goes into heart surgery.”

Bill McKibben incredulously retorted “I don’t think it looks anything like heart surgery,” drawing restrained bursts of approval from the crowd.  He scoffed at the idea asserted by Hofmeister that the goal of energy companies, generally, is to “do no harm,” and discredited the Hofmeister’s industry-developed “gold standards” proposal that would reduce pollution from drilling sites, highlighting the unlikelihood that industry leaders would voluntarily agree to them unless they were exceedingly favorable to industry.

McKibben proceeded to champion the rights of small property owners who were not aware of the extent of the impact that drilling would have on their land and argued that natural gas is undercutting advances in actually clean energy.  He concluded by citing estimates indicating that even if all coal plants converted to natural gas, there would still be a 3.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperature.

Despite the inevitable disagreement and inherent uncertainty surrounding hydraulic fracturing, one thing is clear: fracking will not only continue, but will also expand.  Accordingly, interested parties must heed the advice of Prof. Saiers: we must accept the inevitability of increased natural gas production and focus on the development, implementation, and enforcement of effective management tools.


[1] See John Hofmeister et al., Panel Discussion at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Hydraulic Fracturing : Bridge to Clean Energy Future? (Sept. 18, 2012).

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