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China Must Exploit Its Shale Gas

Apr 18, 2013

If the Senate confirms the nomination of the M.I.T. scientist Ernest J. Moniz as the next energy secretary, as expected, he must use his new position to consider the energy situation not only in the United States, but in China as well. 

Mr. Moniz, a professor of physics and engineering systems and the director of M.I.T.’s Energy Initiative, sailed through a confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. 

But some environmentalists are skeptical of Mr. Moniz. He is known for advocating natural gas and nuclear power as cleaner sources of energy than coal and for his support of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from shale deposits. The environmental group Food and Water Watch has warned that as energy secretary, he “could set renewable energy development back years.” 

The criticism is misplaced. Instead of fighting hydraulic fracturing, environmental activists should recognize that the technique is vital to the broader effort to contain climate change and should be pushing for stronger standards and controls over the process. 

Nowhere is this challenge and opportunity more pressing than in China. Exploiting its vast resources of shale gas is the only short-term way for China, the world’s second-largest economy, to avoid huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal. 

China’s greenhouse gas emissions are twice those of the United States and growing at 8 percent to 10 percent per year. Last year, China increased its coal-fired generating capacity by 50 gigawatts, enough to power a city that uses seven times the energy of New York City. By 2020, an analysis by Berkeley Earth shows, China will emit greenhouse gases at four times the rate of the United States, and even if American emissions were to suddenly disappear tomorrow, world emissions would be back at the same level within four years as a result of China’s growth alone. 

The only way to offset such an enormous increase in energy use is to help China switch from coal to natural gas. A modern natural gas plant emits between one-third and one-half of the carbon dioxide released by coal for the same amount of electric energy produced. China has the potential to unearth large amounts of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing. In 2011, the United States Energy Information Administration estimated that China had “technically recoverable” reserves of 1.3 quadrillion cubic feet, nearly 50 percent more than the United States. 

The risk is that what is now a nascent Chinese shale gas industry may take off in a way that leads to ecological disaster. Many of the purchasers of drilling rights in recent Chinese auctions are inexperienced. 

Opponents of this drilling method point to cases in which gas wells have polluted groundwater or released “fugitive” methane gas emissions. The groundwater issue is worrisome, of course, and weight for weight, methane has a global warming potential 25 to 70 times higher than carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas that results from the burning of coal. 

Moving away from fossil fuels entirely may make sense in the United States, where we can potentially afford to pay for more expensive renewable sources of energy. But developing countries have other priorities, like improving the education and health of their people. Given the dangers that hydraulic fracturing poses for groundwater pollution and gas leaks, we must help China develop an approach that is environmentally sound. 

Mr. Moniz has warned of the need to curb environmental damage from the process. But he has also stressed the value of natural gas as a “bridging” source of energy as we strive to move from largely dirty energy to clean energy. Extracting shale gas in an environmentally responsible way is technically achievable, according to engineering experts. Accomplishing that goal is primarily a matter of engineering and regulation. 

That is where we need the engagement of environmental activists. At home, they can push the United States to set verifiable standards for clean hydraulic fracturing and enforce those standards through careful monitoring. Internationally, American industry can lead by showing that clean production can be profitable. 

We need a solution for energy production that can displace the rapid growth of coal use today. Switching from coal to natural gas could reduce the growth of China’s emissions by more than 50 percent and give the world more time to bring down the cost of solar and wind energy to levels that are affordable for poorer countries. 

Elizabeth Muller is the co-founder and executive director of Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit research organization focused on climate change. 

© 2013 The New York Times

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