Panel discusses fracking tradeoffs

A panel hosted by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies convened yesterday afternoon to discuss hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas from beneath the earth’s surface.

The panelists included John Hofmeister, the founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy and a former president of Shell Oil Company; Bill McKibben, an environmental journalist described by Time magazine as “the world’s best green journalist” and the founder of 350.org; James Saiers, a professor of hydrology and chemical engineering at the environment school; and Sheila Olmstead, a fellow at Resources for the Future. The panelists discussed not only the technology behind fracking but also its economic and political implications. Roughly 100 individuals from across the Yale campus, including students from Yale College and the School of Management, attended the discussion, titled “Hydraulic Fracking: Bridge to a Clean Energy Future?”

Saiers opened the panel by addressing trade-offs of fracking. He argued that while natural gas on its own cannot produce American energy independence, it will be a part of any U.S. energy portfolio. He said the priority should be minimizing the environmental damage caused by fracking.

Taking an even more pro-fracking stance, Hofmeister said he believes that natural gas is not a bridge but rather “a highway to the future.”

He recounted the dirty, noisy and smoky conditions he had previously seen at a fracking site, but he also expressed his belief that engineering will significantly improve the process.

McKibben disagreed, saying that switching from coal to natural gas is not an efficient way to reduce carbon emissions. Even if the entire world switched to natural gas tomorrow, the “red-line,” representing the maximum safe emissions of carbon dioxide, would still be crossed within 16 years, he said.

McKibben directed some of his arguments against the fossil fuel industry’s political power, noting Shell’s significant involvement in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The panel agreed upon a few key points, chief among them that there remain gaps in current knowledge about fracking.

“Science has huge questions to resolve [around fracking],” Olmstead said.

Panelists also reached a consensus around the idea that the environmental costs of fracking and natural gas have not yet been completely studied.

Attendee Tyler Van Leeuwen SOM ’14 said both the public and private sectors will have to cooperate to address climate change.

“There’s a need to address climate change in the context of business,” Van Leeuwen said.

The event was recorded and can be viewed on Yale’s website.

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