Frackonomics: the implications of cheap gas

At 5:30 on Tuesday another crowd settled in to a University of Wisconsin – Madison lecture hall for the final forum to foster public discourse on the state’s booming frac sand industry. This time, it wasn’t about Wisconsin’s sand, or who’s coming in to the state to mine it. This last forum, facilitated by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, focused on what the state’s sand is helping to produce, cheap natural gas, and what that means for future energy consumption and associated climatic impacts.

On the docket was Phil Montgomery, chairperson of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC), Greg Nemet, assistant professor of public affairs and environmental studies at UW-Madison, and Frank Greb, president of Energy Center of Wisconsin. Rather than go speaker-by-speaker, I’ll summarize the most thought-provoking insights of the evening. In contemplating the impact cheap natural gas on U.S. energy here is what these three men had to offer:

If natural gas stays as cheap as it is currently, it will replace other, more expensive forms of energy. In the short run, it will likely primarily replace coal, which will benefit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions because burning natural gas releases half as much CO2 as burning coal. In the long run however, cheap natural gas will replace more expensive renewable energy sources and also reduce incentives to develop renewable energy. It would be helpful if we had policy to incentivize renewable energy development, even when the market doesn’t call for it.

Wisconsin has renewable energy standards, and the state is doing well meeting them. Though natural gas meets many energy policy goals, namely cheap, clean, and reliable, and emits less CO2 than coal, it isn’t renewable and still contributes significantly to green house gas emissions. To hit longer-term CO2 emission and renewable energy consumption targets, natural gas won’t be the solution, but it can serve as a bridge to a low-carbon future, preventing increased emissions in meantime.

The panel had some well-educated, thoughtful remarks about the state of energy supplies and the implications of cheap natural gas. They didn’t tie many of their comments directly to hydraulic fracturing though, and the audience took notice. The question and answer portion of the forum was a bit more spirited than the first two. People expressed their strong doubts about both fracking as a process of acquiring energy and the sustainability of cheap non-renewable fuel. The crowd wanted to know how externalities to the market value of cheap natural gas were being considered, both social and environmental. And they weren’t satisfied by suggestions that everyone “doing their part” to conserve nonrenewable energy and would make a difference. One woman became distraught as she voiced concern that what she is doing isn’t enough to leave her grandchildren with a sustainable world.

Though some audience members articulated worries, about fracking, frac sand mining, and energy issues that clearly weren’t consoled by these three forums, I’m not sure consolation was the point. The information shared in and conversations sparked by these forums will help Wisconsinites make decisions. And that, I believe, was the Nelson Institute’s goal.

To read about the first and second community environmental forums about frac sand mining in Wisconsin see here:

#1 – What the frac is Wisconsin in the energy game?

#2 – Frickity frac: what is sand mining’s impact?

If you’re interested in frac sand mining, be sure to follow the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s coverage.

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