Summits on Tenth: A Conversation About Fracking

Natural Resources Defense Council's Kate Sinding and Breakthrough Institute's Michael Shellenberger tackle the issue of fracking.

AlterNet has partnered with the Nathan Cummings Foundation to produce Summits on Tenth, a new video series featuring conversations that challenge conventional thinking on the issues you care about. In our second installment, “The Striking Challenge of Fracking: Who Does it Benefit and Who Gets Hurt?” Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute and Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council present strong — and sometimes opposing — points of view on this complicated topic. The event was moderated by Simon Greer.

Below is a transcript from the event. You can view the complete video, as well as an 11-minute highlight video and responses from other experts here.

MODERATOR:  Kate Sinding is a senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program.  Her primary focus involves ensuring the proposed natural gas drilling in the northeast is subject to the most stringent environment and health protections.  

Michael Shellenberger is an author, environmental policy expert and the president of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a long-time grantee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  Co-editor of “Love your Monsters” and “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael, and his co-author Ted Nordhaus, were described by Slate Magazine as modernists or ecopragmatists.  Welcome to both of you. 

KATE SINDING:  Thank you.

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER:  Thanks for having us.

MODERATOR:  For many of us, our views on tough issues like fracking don't just come from what we've learned in a book.  They come through our lived experience.  So I wonder if we might ask you, first Kate and then Michael, just to say a word or two about how did you develop a passion for the environment, what got you to this work.  Sort of personally, why are you here tonight?

MS. SINDING:  Sure.  Yeah.  I think my interest goes back to the way that I was raised.  My parents were both in the foreign service and so I was raised largely abroad which gave me an opportunity to experience a variety of cultures and natural - develop a real passion for different kinds of natural environments.  I was always told I should be an advocate or, most specifically, a lawyer, growing up.  And I fought that as I guess any good arguer would until it became inevitable.  

And then deciding that I was going to bring those skills to work on the environment specifically came into play between college and law school when I spent some time in Los Angeles.  And it was actually experiencing the transition from the clear skies of the winter to the smoggy summer that it really came home to me that that's where I wanted to put my energies.

MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Michael.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Well, I grew up in a small town in Colorado where, in fact, there's a lot of natural gas activity going on.  And I spent a lot of my childhood in the mountains hiking and skiing.  And then I was a very political young man in my adolescence.  And I wanted to experience the Nicaraguan revolution.  So in 1988 when I was 17 I went to Nicaragua and lived with families there, one family in particular. Most of them - I mean, everybody I lived with was using for wood for fuel.  And I got to see up close both how harmful that is to the health of women that cook over woodstoves all day long and also how degrading it is the forests in the nearby region when you're dependent on wood for your fuel.  So for me, that nexus between social justice and environmental quality was really clear from a pretty young age.  

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thanks.  Thanks.  So, tonight's discussion about fracking is obviously part of a larger debate about climate change, about global warming, about energy access.  But I want to strip that away and focus in for a second and ask you:  This is a complex issue.  And we sometimes get confused what is the issue, what isn't the issue.  Just want to define the issue.  So if I could ask each of you, first Michael and then Kate, to just very simply, without a lot of drama, what is the issue that we're debating when people say, where are you on the fracking debate?  So just clear and simple - like a 101 for the audience:  What is the debate about?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Well, I think what we're dealing with is an energy transition.  So we're - the United States is in the process of transitioning, or it could be even further, away from coal and towards natural gas.  So in 2007, we got about 50 percent of our electricity from coal.  Last year, we got about 38 percent.  Coal has been viewed over the last 20 years as the enemy of the climate - the number one enemy of the climate, environmental enemy number one.

It's because it's so carbon intensive.  It's really contributing to the warming of the planet over the last hundred or so years.  And the other thing about coal people don't understand, it's sponge rock, so it absorbs a lot of dangerous minerals, including mercury, that when burned go into the food system and we get them in our bodies and have all sorts of health problems - also one of the most dangerous professions.

Now, we're moving toward natural gas.  Natural gas has a bunch of other challenges associated with it.  There's still carbon in it.  There's still impacts on the landscape.  And those have to be dealt with.  I think it's important though to sort of see this transition in that historical context.  When we moved from wood to coal there were also big problems and there were also huge benefits.  And I think as a society, we need to, you know, help the victims of those transitions as well as take advantage of some of the benefits.

MODERATOR:  So in one sentence, what is the crux of the debate about fracking?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  I think the crux of the debate is how to manage the negative impacts of natural gas exploration.

MODERATOR:  Kate, how do you see it?

MS. SINDING:  I - you know, I certainly agree with what Michael said about coal.  And there's no question that it's terrible and we've got to get ourselves off it as quickly as possible.  I think I'd frame the debate about fracking a little bit differently.  And I think what I'd say is, you know, fracking is a technology that's been around for a while, but due to recent innovations has enabled us to tap reservoirs of natural gas and oil that weren't previously available. 

And it's - the debate that has really framed up is, on the one hand, does that present an economic boon, an opportunity for energy independence, in the case of gas, a chance to move off of coal?  Or does it represent a - just yet another exploitation of a fossil fuel, one that brings with it significant impacts in the communities where it's extracted and one that may further delay us from meeting the climate imperative that we all face.

MODERATOR:  So before we can move forward and have our discussion or our debate, do we have to debate what we're debating?  Or, Michael, would you agree with Kate's framing of the debate - (inaudible).

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Sure.  No, I think we're in the same ballpark, so -

MODERATOR:  We know what we're debating.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah, I think so.  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  So now that we know what we're debating, I'm going to ask you to each offer your position.  So maybe we'll start with you, Kate, and then to go you, Michael.  What is your position on the debate you both just summarized about fracking?

MS. SINDING:  OK, sure.  NRDC's top priority is to address climate change.  And as I indicated, there - we completely agree that coal is the worst and we've got to get ourselves off coal as quickly as we can.  I think where we differ is with respect to what the role of the environmental community is with respect to gas development.  Our top priority is to move us to truly clean energy as quickly as we can.  And by that, I mean energy efficiency and renewables.  We acknowledge that gas is cleaner than coal when it's burned.  And we acknowledge that gas will inevitably have a role to play in our energy future no matter what we do.  

But it's not clean enough, either to meet the climate imperative or because of the substantial impacts that it does have in terms of its production.  I think where we would take some issue with the Breakthrough Institute's work on this issue is that they, I think, understate the impacts - the very real impacts associated with its development.  And the other area where I think we may diverge if that we see a greater risk that going all-in on gas development really does take us on a path where we're dependent on fossil fuels far longer than the planet can sustain and takes us off of the transition path that we need to be on towards truly clean energy.

MODERATOR:  I know it's tempting to want to rebut Kate's initial critique, but just start, Michael, if you would, with what is Breakthrough's position on the fracking debate?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Well, I think the first thing is just that we're - we are in the midst of a transition and we need to continue that transition.  Gas is just better than coal at every metric:  about 25 deaths per terawatt hour with coal, about 3 with natural gas; almost no mercury in natural gas, coal is full of it; about twice the carbon in coal as in gas.  So I think we basically agree that gas is better than coal and we need to replace coal with it.

MODERATOR:  That's true, Kate.  We agree.  Gas is better than coal.

MS. SINDING:  We agree that gas is better than coal.

MODERATOR:  All right.  I'm going to check that one off.  (Laughter.)

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah.  I think the other thing is that gas is actually good for renewables.  Most people aren't totally aware - they might be aware - solar and wind, obviously, are not always on.  They're not considered baseload sources of power.  So they need to have either a backup in the form of batteries which are very expensive, really not - we don't have utility scale batteries, really - or pump storage, such as using hydroelectric dams.  

But mostly what we use is gas.  And the very cheap gas that we've got over the last several years has not had a negative impact at all on renewables.  In fact, renewables, because they're totally dependent on subsidies, and when we took the - Congress almost took the subsidy away from wind last year and the entire industry shut down.  In fact, for six months there was really no starts on wind.  So what gas does is it - as the - as they see the wind coming off line or as, you know, night come, they ramp back up the gas to cover that.  So I think there's - I don't think there's any question on that, either.  I think gas is really good for renewables.

So then there's the question of -

MODERATOR:  Hold that thought.


MODERATOR:  Is gas good for renewables?

MS. SINDING:  What I would say on that is that gas has been used as a backup for renewables.  But increasingly because of our ability with forecasting to understand when renewables are going to be able to be on and off line and as we ramp up more and more renewable development in wider geographic areas, we're going to have to - we're going to be able to use forecasting more to do load balancing and have much less reliance on backup fuels, including gas.

MODERATOR:  Michael?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  That's not really true.  I mean, Germany actually is a good test of this.  They have a lot of solar they've installed.  And in fact, they've actually had to be more reliant on other sources of baseload power that they can ramp up.  Most people don't know that half of Germany's renewable commitment is actually in the form of trash or burning trees, neither of which - I don't think either of those is particularly environmentally sustainable.  

So it's not really the case that if you get more renewables you have more reliability.  In fact, if you have more renewables - what they've had to do in Germany sometimes when you do have a lot of electricity coming from renewables, they have to dump that power onto the grid.  You have Germany's neighbors who are connected to Germany through the grid having to actually shut down electrical transmission on those moments so as not to overwhelm their grids.  

That's a huge problem in Germany.  They're really struggling to figure it out.  And I think it's worth noting that while U.S. emissions have declined faster than any other country in the world over the last five years, Germany is going back to coal.  Last year their emissions went up 1.5 percent.  This year there's likely to go up again.  So I - when you kind of - when we position it as renewables versus gas, you risk actually supporting coal.  And that's what the German example shows.

MODERATOR:  Kate, one more run at that one?

MS. SINDING:  Yeah, I think there are a few steps that got skipped there, or maybe some leaps in logic.  You know, what I'm talking about is innovations in technology that are going to address some of the issues that have historically existed, that have meant that we've had to have other sources of power to backup renewables.  And we're looking at just extraordinarily rapid innovation changes with renewables over the last five years alone.

I'm not trying to make the case that there's no role for gas to play currently in backing up renewables, but I'm saying that we're going to have an increasing ability to turn to technological innovation that allows us to move away from gas.

MODERATOR:  So we agree that gas is better than coal but we don't agree yet about the relationship between gas and renewables.  Is that fair between the two of you?

MS. SINDING:  I don't know that we completely disagree.  I think maybe what I would say is we're less convinced that you need to have an expansion in gas production.  In fact, we don't believe you need to have any expansion in gas production in order to ramp up renewables.  And again, we haven't - what we haven't touched on at all efficiency, which is where we can still gain tremendous amounts in terms of weaning our energy consumption.

MODERATOR:  OK, so let me ask you to do this.  Each of you, in 30 seconds:  What is your organization's position on fracking?  Michael then Kate.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Well, I - fracking's a little bit of a strange way to put it.  I think we should accelerate the transition from coal to gas.  And in think that in order to do that we need to continue to make natural gas production safer and cleaner.  So one thing to keep in mind, between 1990 and 2010, gas production increased 40 percent and yet methane leakage from overall gas production declined 10 percent.  So - and that's the result of both public pressure, government regulations, and new technologies coming on - a lot of innovation, a lot of it which has been supported by the Department of Energy over the years.  So I think more innovation, more of a transition from coal to gas.

MODERATOR:  More innovation -

MS. SINDING:  How many seconds did you give me?  (Laughs.)

MODERATOR:  More innovation, more transition from coal to gas?

MS. SINDING:  Yeah, that wouldn't - that would not be NRDC's position.  NRDC's position with respect to fracking is very complicated.  This is really complicated issue.  And I can't give it to you in a 10-second sound bite.  But what I would say is, we are very concerned about the rapid expansion of natural gas development, which has been largely a result of fracking, at least in this country and increasingly abroad.  We're very concerned that it's inadequately regulated at every level at this point, that there are significant impacts and significant risks that still aren't fully understood.  So our position is that we need to understand much more fully what those risks are.  And in the meantime, we need to go all-in on renewables and energy efficiency.  Those are the true clean energy solutions.

MODERATOR:  So if I was going to give you each a tagline, NRDC would be “wait and see” and Breakthrough would be “frack, baby, frack”?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  (Laughs.)  No, I think that - like I said, I think that for fracking to really be successful, it needs to get even better, it need to get even cleaner than it already is.  So I don't - I don't - that sort of makes me - that's sort of the wrong framing, I would say.  And I think that you've had a track record of the government, of communities and of the industry trying to work this stuff out.  And it's contentious and it's conflictual, but that's life on Earth.  That's life in America in particular.

MODERATOR:  Do you want to respond to “wait and see”?

MS. SINDING:  Yeah.  I mean, I don't know that my communications people would like that - (laughs) - as our tagline.  They'd probably think it needs some refinement.  But I don't think that's a - that's a bad way of putting it.  You know, again, we recognize it's happening.  And I guess the one addition I would add to that is that we do recognize that it is happening in many communities.  People are being affected right now.  It's not being adequately regulated.  And a not insignificant part of our work is making sure that we do everything we can to put better safeguards in place in those - in those communities now.

MODERATOR:  Now, in a real honest effort to understand each other and the issues better, I want to ask you first, Michael, and then you, Kate, to share with us the one, two or three biggest weaknesses or blind spots in the other's point of view.

So if I was going to ask you, Michael, what is limited or missing or lacking in the NRDC's perspective on this, and then ask you the same - (inaudible) -

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah.  Well, I think the first thing is a broad perspective of energy transitions.  So over the last couple of hundred years, countries all over the world have basically moved in a similar direction when it comes to modernizing their sources of energy.  They've gone from wood and dung to coal and hydroelectric, from coal and hydroelectric to gas, from gas to nuclear and renewables; that's a trajectory where you move towards less carbon-intensive sources of energy, and it's been mostly incremental, and mostly to the benefit of health, life expectancy, quality of life.  So I think having that broad perspective is missing.

I think the second thing is that there's really - really, for 40 years, environmental groups have waved away the challenges of intermittency.  People say things like, well, we'll have smart grids, you know?  Or we'll have pump storage or air compression, and really, those problems - not only have they not been addressed or are not going away - Kate mentioned - we've got all these technologies that are going to come online and make that manageable - well, Germany is the technological leader when it comes to managing renewables, and they're experiencing huge problems.  I encourage people to go look at - Der Spiegel has a major investigative report out this week; others have been looking at it.  They ran into huge challenges by not dealing with the intermittency thing.

So I - you know, and I think the third part is that you've got to pay attention to both winners and losers, and with gas, you have seen - we have left seven times more coal in the ground than we've exported.  We're in the midst of a - of a transition that's basically positive, that we should not be putting the brakes on, that has been good for the environment; it's been good for workers, and frankly it's a much better job to be working in natural gas than in coal.

And it's been good for the whole country, good for the economy.  It's produced $100 billion a year - it's acted as a second stimulus for President Obama.  In fact, I think it might be fair to say that I'm not sure President Obama would have Ohio or won re-election if it hadn't been for the gas boom.

MODERATOR:  Kate, what are the biggest weaknesses in the Breakthrough position?

MS. SINDING:  You know, I think the biggest weakness is that better is not good enough, that the fact that gas is better than coal - and there is no argument there - I mean - and I should say, because there are going to be people out there who disagree with that, that there are folks who think that because of the methane emissions and so on, and, in fact, gas may be worse than coal, and I think there's a lot of data that's coming out on that - but even if you accept as true that gas is cleaner than coal, which we do, it's not good enough.

And there - what we need to be doing - and Breakthrough Institute has acknowledged the success of subsidies and other policies that exist to really ramp up efficiency and renewables as quickly as possible - that's where we've got to be focusing our energy.  The gas industry doesn't need our help promoting its product; it does a pretty darn good job of doing that on its own.  We need to be focusing on moving to the really true clean energy alternatives that are going to solve the climate crisis and that are going to make for cleaner energy production in all communities.

MODERATOR:  So let me ask you.  Does us moving forward more aggressively with fracking, natural gas expansion - does it make a difference for the poorest people in the world?  Is it a net gain for the 2 billion people who don't have enough access to energy, and do you - what do you - either of you think about that?  You agree about that?  Disagree about that?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  It could be.  I mean, one of the most exciting things is - so there's 1.3 billion people in the world who don't have any access - really any access at all to modern energy - about 2 billion that have just a little bit, like a light bulb a few hours a day.

Those desperately poor people need to consume a lot more energy, you know?  There's studies that show that women that breathe wood smoke lose about 20 years of their life.  So just getting energy production out of their homes into centralized power stations, having an electrical grid - these are the foundations of modern life.

Now, what's interesting about Africa in particular is that they have a lot more gas than they do coal.  And in fact, you look at a country like Nigeria - obviously, a lot of gas in that country - a big oil and gas industry - not particularly well-managed, because it's not a particularly well-managed country.  So when you - when you think about energy access, you can't help but talk about these larger questions of development.

But the potential is that a place like Africa could skip coal.  They could go right to natural gas, have always-on electricity that's cheap, abundant, that's going to really fuel their modernization and development.  I think what would be great is if we could keep our coal in the ground, just like we - you know, we stopped going after whales.  You know, if you look at the 19th century, whale oil spiked in the middle of the 19th century.  We didn't move away from it because we had a cap and trade on whales or a whale tax; we invented better alternatives.  First it was kerosene, and then it was electricity.  And I think that's exactly what's happening right now with coal in the United States.  I think it has the potential to happen that way in Europe, and I think also the same thing for China.

MODERATOR:  Say a word about this transition or about the potential benefit to people in Africa from your point of view.

MS. SINDING:  Yeah.  You know, I guess what I would - what I would to say to that - and there's no question that we've got tremendous issues associated with meeting the energy demands of a growing global population.  But the same concerns that we have about the ill effects of production in this country would extend elsewhere.  We are currently working with the government in China, and to some extent, in India, in trying to tell them what we've learned about the experience of fracking in this country, what the risks are, what we know, what we don't know, what are better ways to manage those risks.

And those are things certainly that if other countries are going to choose to exploit their natural gas resources, we would want to export to them.  But we - you know, we don't view any single fuel - and including natural gas - as being a panacea for meeting the world's energy needs.

MODERATOR:  Is it true that this whole fracking debate is producing some sort of short-term benefit, but the prices are going to go up, the methane isn't going to be as manageable as we thought, and we're going to end up saying, this was kind of a - not a shortcut, but a detour?  Is that a fear for either of you or a concern?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yes, go ahead, Kate.

MS. SINDING:  Well, I mean, I guess I would - I would question the premise of the short-term benefit.  I mean, there is no question that the fracking boom has resulted in a decrease in gas prices, and that does bring with it some benefits.  And there's no question that there have been some economic winners associated with the fracking boom and the increase in natural gas development.

That said, there have been a lot of losers, too.  There are folks who have been affected by water contamination, who are being affected by air contamination, whose property values have been affected; there are communities who are dealing with very serious community impacts associated with the - with the rush of a new fossil fuel industry coming into town.

And those are things that can't be discounted and that aren't being properly accounted for in our current debate about natural gasses as a beneficial fuel.  So I don't know if that answered the - (inaudible) -

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah, my perception's a little bit different.  I think that, actually, the victims of it are being - especially in, like, the New York media market and the celebrity involvement in this - I think, actually, that's what's gotten the attention.  It's not a one-to-one thing.  It's not like - the gas revolution is not creating as many victims as it is creating beneficiaries.  It's just simply not the case.  It wasn't the case when we went from wood to coal, either.  People lost their jobs chopping and hauling wood, but it allowed people to have modern energy.  It allowed people to live decades longer, and it allowed us to save our forests.

And that's - with coal - going from coal to gas, we are clearly moving from a worse energy source to a better energy source.  So yes, in acknowledging that, you're not overlooking the fact that there are victims who we need to deal with it, but I think we have to put those in context.

The one little thing I would just say too is, we say fracking - it's a kind of a - it's a great word, because it's got that edge to it.  We did a pretty detailed history - the first one - of the shale gas revolution.  It was really three separate technologies that were important.  All of them were supported by U.S. taxpayers.  It was horizontal drilling, it was the fracking, and it was underground mapping, which comes from a long - an amazing history of just how we got to those tools.

And I think, as Kate mentioned, you know, as gas goes abroad, the U.S. is going to contribute much better technologies for getting gas than have previously existed.  So I think it's important to - you know, and there's been talk for awhile about actually moving away from using water in those fracks - using butane or some other way of getting the gas underground.

So I think if you really care about these environmental impacts, it's not just no, no, no.  It's also got to be, how do we actually apply human ingenuity and our collective resources into solving these problems through technological innovation?

MS. SINDING:  Can I just have a quick response to that?

I - you know, I think that there's a real glossing over here of what the impacts here.  I don't know that you can quantify how many victims there have been versus what the benefits are, in part because I think, in general, there has been a glossing over of these impacts.  It's not because celebrities are raising the issue.  It's because real people - people that I've gone and visited in states across the country and especially in Pennsylvania, where I've spent a lot of time, are experiencing some very upsetting impacts, things that they weren't - they were led to believe wouldn't happen when the landmen came in and signed them up, when the gas companies explained what was going to happen, when the regulators told them what was going to be there.

These are real concerns.  We can't just poo-poo them and put them to the side because natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal.  We've got to deal with them, and we've got to acknowledge them.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Can I just add a couple of points to that?

MODERATOR:  So I just want to - please.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  So, first of all, nobody's pooh-poohing them.  You know, a couple of things are worth noting.  NRDC was a huge advocate of natural gas just as recently as five years ago.  They understood that natural gas was good for renewables.  They understood that it was better than coal.  And, in fact, if you go and look at the documents from back then, to the posture that NRDC is taking now, you'll see a big change.  And I don't think it's always about the environment.

The movie “Promised Land” that Matt Damon made about fracking, that was originally about building a wind farm.  These are cases in - they're fracking under my elementary school in my home town.  So I'm not unfamiliar with people that don't like it.  I mean, I guess, I wonder Kate, you know, are you talking to the people that want natural gas activity?


MR. SHELLENBERGER:  And are you interviewing them, too?  And do you consider them victims?  In other words, people that want natural gas drilling, you know, for income and also for - as an environmental thing - do you consider them victims, too?

MS. SINDING:  No, I don't consider them victims.  I consider them people who have real economic development needs that we have to address, and I would argue that there are better ways of addressing them than through natural gas development, which is why we're working with the Cuomo administration in New York, as one example, to develop a clean energy agenda that would bring long-term, sustainable, good-paying jobs to the Southern Tier.  We certainly understand that there are real economic development issues that confront people not just in the Southern Tier of New York, but across the country and across the world. 

I'm not sure what the - what your implication is in terms of what our motivation is on our current stance.  We're not saying no to natural gas absolutely.  We're not saying no to fracking.  We're saying there are real concerns, real unanswered questions.  We want, as an environmental organization, to go all in on what we know to be clean, long-term sustainable energy sources.

MR. SHELLENBERGER: I would like the victims to actually include victims of coal mining and people that would like the economic development and contributing an environmentally superior fuel source; those people also are victims.  And so I think it shouldn't be limited to people who have fracking happening near them if they don't like it.

MODERATOR:  So we'll - we're going to actually go down that road a little bit.  I want to bring in some other voices.  Kate, you just said that NRDC does not say “no” to fracking, ever, but I want to bring in the voice of someone who does say no to fracking and see what you both make of that.

So Sandra Steingraber is a biologist and author and an advisory board member of New Yorkers Against Fracking, and she recently said, “I believe, as do many of my colleagues in the sciences, that it's not safe to compress explosive gases and store them underneath and beside a lake that serves as the drinking water for a hundred thousand people.  We can talk about the economic benefits of fracking, but if we're making people sick and we're giving people cancer, if we're giving people asthma, if we're contributing to pre-term birth and so forth, then are we not creating medical costs in addition?”

Michael, what would you say back to Dr. Steinberg?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah,  I mean, I think what's - what's backgrounded over all of that is that there is some way to produce the energy to produce the energy to power a modern society that won't have environmental impacts. So and - you know - and you heard a little bit from Kate, well, we don't need gas to do it; we can get rid of coal by going to solar and wind.

Well, I've been an advocate of solar and wind for about 15 years.  I co-founded the Apollo alliance, pushed for a $300 billion investment by President Obama; he did about 90 billion (dollars) of that in stimulus.  I'm proud of that work; I think renewables are great.

Last year, solar provided .15 percent of our electricity in the United States.  Wind provided 3.5 percent.  Those are not technologies that are able to be coal-killer technologies, pure and simple.  So I appreciate that gas has impacts.  I think we need to deal with them.  Our recent report lays out a bunch of ways to deal with them, but I think it's irresponsible to suggest that we can power a modern civilization - 9 billion people consuming at high levels of energy without having environmental impacts.

One example suffices.  Making solar panels is an incredibly toxic process.  It involves heavy metals, you know, it involves creating a lot of air pollution.  In China in 2011, one of the big solar plants that got constructed there had a big spill, and it contaminated the river with fluoride, and there was literally huge protests, massive outrage by the local residents.  We live in a world that - you know, energy technologies - it's not like information technologies, where you can continue to ramp up their power without affecting the environment.  Energy technologies are energy conversion technologies.  You're taking natural energy forces and you're converting them into highly dense and usable energy sources, like electricity.  It's going to have huge impacts.  So the question is, how do you manage those impacts?  What are those impacts?  Who wins and who loses, and how do you deal with the consequences?

MODERATOR:  OK.  Response to any Dr. Steingraber or to -

MS. SINDING:  I'd love to respond to both, but I'll respond to Michael first, because he's here.  I didn't say go tomorrow to hundred percent reliance on renewables.  I don't think we'll ever go to a hundred percent reliance on renewables.  We're going to have a complex energy mix in this country.  

And perhaps I have done injustice to NRDC's position by talking so much about renewables, but a huge part of the solution is efficiency, which is something we haven't talked about at all today.  And I'll just give you one example as to why this is so key and so fundamental to our position.  Right now, one of the things that we're working very hard to advance and we're - the Obama administration has embraced this - would be a plan that would for the first time regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants., and it would do that under the existing authority that EPA has under the Clean Air Act and the so-called state implementation program.  Basically what it would do is give states an allocation for how much they could emit, and then they're responsible for bringing their sources into compliance with that.  What we have shown using outside analysts is that we could achieve the reductions - we could achieve essentially a one-third reduction in our carbon emissions by 2025 from existing power plants purely through efficiency and renewables, with no increase in our use of gas over business as usual.  So there are other ways that we can - that we can cut this, and there's no - there's no reason why we need to have a massive expansion in gas production to move to the energy future that we both agree we need to get to.

MODERATOR:  And to Dr. Steingraber who says you're accommodating too much, what would you say to her?

MS. SINDING:  Yeah.  I mean, and I know Sandra, and I have tremendous respect for her.  And I certainly agree - I think the quote you take is specifically with respect to a proposal to store natural gas underground near Seneca Lake, which is a terrible idea.  What I would say is that I think, unfortunately, the way that this debate has gotten framed in many forums now is at the extremes.  And I think what you're hearing is rhetoric on both sides, from the industry side and the pro-development side, and also from those who are concerned about it.  And we need probably to have more dialogue that happens somewhere between those two extremes.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Michael, I agree with that last part.  (Inaudible.)  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  Michael, Kate's point about the importance of efficiency and the one-third benefit we could find through that, do you agree?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Let's talk about efficiency for a minute.  Big studies have been done - they're used by the IPCC (ph) - studying energy efficiency.  So what happens is that all economies become much more energy efficient.  They've all become much more energy efficiency over the last 200 years.  As buildings turn over, vehicles, appliances, they become much more efficient.  

But during that same amount of time, we've used more and more energy.  That may seem paradoxical because you think that energy efficiency would cancel out the need for energy, but I'll give you one example.  Let's say you're a steel factory in China, you make steel.  And a number of environmental groups have been working with those Chinese factories to make them more energy efficient, which is something I completely applaud.  It's a great thing to do.  Well, can you - can you guess what happens when you make those factories more energy efficient?  Do we think that they use less energy and produce the same amount of steel?

MODERATOR:  They go 24/7 and produce more steel.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  They're able to produce - so energy efficiency actually enables greater energy consumption.  This goes back to the invention of the steam engine, of the Watt steam engine.  People thought, well, the Watt steam engine, it's going to use - it's going to mean that we use less coal than the earlier versions.  Well, in fact, it meant that we used a lot more coal.  

So efficiency is great because it's actually a driver of economic growth, which is important for people living longer, healthier and freer lives.  But it's - efficicency's not actually a way to just simply reduce consumption.  So the study that Kate referred to, it's easy to do a study where your conclusions are your assumptions.  That's what that is.  In other words, if I go do a study, I say we can power the whole world on solar and wind, I can create my Excel spreadsheet and I just say you just need this many solar panels and you just need this many wind, or I could say, we need to just reduce our energy consumption by half - my conclusions are my assumptions, in those studies.  You really have to look at how energy works in the real world.  And when you do that, you find some patterns over the last 200 years that I think a lot of these scenarios that suggest that we can just do all efficiency and renewables violate in the extreme.

MS. SINDING:  I just - Michael, I think you're referring to - I think - I'm not sure what study you're referring to.  Is it the Jacobson (sp) study?  Because I'm not referring to that.  I'm referring to a study that NRDC commissioned that doesn't say, here's where we want to get to, show how we can get there.  It says, map out different scenarios, and there's a scenario that maps out that shows that you don't need any increase in gas over business as usual.

I want to refer to Michael's -

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  But that is the same - just to - that is - your conclusions are you assumptions to be clear.

MODERATOR:  (Inaudible.)

MS. SINDING:  Let's leave that to the side.  What Michael's referring to with respect to efficiency is something that's known as the rebound effect.  It's an old theory that's recently come back in vogue again, thanks in large part to the Breakthrough Institute.  It's been roundly demonstrated not to have any validity, and I would refer you to a recent report that was published by NRDC, by my colleagues David Goldstein and Sierra Martinez, that really demonstrates that there's no - there's no merit to the rebound argument.  One, yes, it's true we've used more and more energy, but it's not proportionate.  If you had a rebound effect, you would say if you cut efficiency - I'm sorry, if you increase efficiency by three times, then your energy usage should go up by three times, or something approximating that.  It's nothing like that.  In the U.S., since the last oil shock in 1973 until 2009, we increased our energy efficiency by three times and our increase in energy usage was less than one-third.  So there is no parity there.  There is no significant rebound effect.  There's no question that efficiency takes us a tremendous way in terms of where we need to get to to reducing our carbon emissions.

MODERATOR:  So the good news is, we agreed that gas was better than coal.  

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah.  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  And since then, we haven't had as much common ground.  (Laughter.)

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  And that we should avoid the extremes, too, that we should avoid the extremes.  

So I would just say - I don't - we don't need - it's a technical conversation.  There's been more than a hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers on this issue of rebound.  Nobody suggested - I'm not suggesting it's a hundred percent, but these are by independent scientific studies. Especially when you look at places like China, places with high levels of energy demand, what you find is effectively lowering the price of energy allows people to consume more of it.  And mostly that's a great thing - (inaudible).

MS. SINDING:  But mostly it puts money in their pocket to consume other things.  It's not a 1:1.  People don't save money and then - people don't get a CFL and then leave their lights on all night.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Well, the - 

MODERATOR:  The rebound effect, very interesting.  I want to move us on.  (Laughter.)  And I want to - I sort of brought in Dr. Steingraber, and I want to ask about some voice that I guess we'll be seeing as coming from the right.  I want to quote back to you something from the American Petroleum Institute and see what you both think of this.  So they insist that hydraulic fracturing is entirely safe and that, quote, “comprehensive and robust regulations already exist for nearly every aspect of natural gas exploration and production, including hydraulic fracturing.”  They believe that significant additions to the existing regulations, although well-intentioned, only serve to hinder significant domestic energy source.  

Michael, can you help us distinguish between what the American Petroleum Institute says and what Breakthrough says so people understand where there's distinction?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Sure.  Yeah, I mean, that's not our view.  We think regulation is really important, always have.  And the way regulations work is, is they work incrementally.  So , you know, the best - (inaudible) - is sort of the - you know, the EPA standard of using the best available technology.  So you set the regulations in relationship to the technologies that are available.  That's how you do your - so part of the reason why - this is why the irony is that Clinton - I mean, not Clinton - Obama's climate strategy heavily relies on natural gas, in other words, moving away from coal in a way that's inexpensive, relies heavily on having cheap natural gas.  

You know, I think that, though, we debate - there's a lot of debate between left and right about regulation that's been really polarizing, and it really misses the main event.  The main event is innovation.  The way that you can increase natural gas production between 1990 and 2010 40 percent and still reduce leakage of methane is because of much better technologies - they're called green completions, sealing the wells.  The gas doesn't really leak from the shale.  It leaks from the wells going up.  There - it's not rocket science.  There's a way to do those right.  So it's really been a matter of technological innovations to make those green completions cheaper and easier, and also compliance.  You do tend to find - as much as we kind of go the big oil companies are the bad guys, you do tend to find that actually the big firms are better about - and they're also easier to enforce - better about implementing those technologies.

MODERATOR:  So more emphasis on innovation and less on regulation, or - 

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  I don't think it's a more or less thing.  I think we need to have more emphasis on innovation definitely, at all aspects of it.  And I think that we should continue basically what we've been doing in regulation for the last 40 years.  It's worked incredibly well.  I mean, our skies are much cleaner and clearer than they were, our waterways are much better.  And as you - like I said, I mean, the other area that we haven't talked about is wastewater.  Wastewater through coal mining was a disaster, and the amount of water required is also much higher than it is for gas.

MODERATOR:  Kate, what do you make of the American Petroleum Institute's view that we have enough regulation?

MS. SINDING:  I disagree with it - (laughter) - you'll be shocked to hear.  There's a lot, I think, in Michael's answer that I did agree with, and I was trying to kind of tick him off, and then there'd be things that I'd say - oh, no, I have to disagree with something he said.  

I think we're both in agreement that you've got to have regulation.  I think we're also in agreement that there's a lot that happens through innovation.  You've absolutely got to have both.  It's - this industry has shown that it is not capable of self-regulation unless we have clear and enforceable and enforced regulations at the federal and state levels.  We're going to continue to have unacceptable impacts associated with oil and gas development in this country.  A really key piece of that is the enforced part.  I - where I would say I think we maybe differ a little bit is that it isn't rocket science, how you drill a wellbore - still unanswered questions, we would say, about the long-term risks associated with what happens after you stop production.  What happens when you shut that well in and cement starts to degrade and the company's gone?  Who's looking at it?  Who's making sure that you're not getting methane leakage or leakage or other contaminations over the long haul that are going to create serious problems?  These are things that in theory there are technological answers to, and with enough money and the right kinds of regulations on the books, you can address those things.  We're miles and miles and miles away from being there.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Oh, I was with you just until the very end - (inaudible).  (Laughter.) 

MS. SINDING:  Darn!  (Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  So we're making some progress on finding little bits of agreement, and I think, illuminating the issues.  Obviously, there are strong and diverse opinions about this.  That's in part why we're here tonight.  

You know, at this foundation we care a lot about real people, and so what I want to do is I want to take this debate and make it very concrete and very specific.  And to do that, I want to share with you three sort of character composites of people who live very different lives and ask you - take them one at a time - and then ask you what, if anything, your approach to fracking and natural gas - what does it mean for these people?

So, first I want you to meet Dale Abbot (sp).  Mr. Abbot (sp) is a 54-year-old father of four who has worked in the mines of eastern Kentucky since he was 25.  Last year, Mr. Ebbit Abbot lost his job at the mine where he had been working most of his adult life.  Coal mining is the largest employer in Kentucky.  However, this year the number of coal jobs in Kentucky hit its lowest level since 1927.  One of the reasons for the job losses is arguably competition from relatively cheap natural gas.  Abbot got a new job earning far less and commuting such a long distance that he has even less time with his family.  And maybe we'll go to Michael first and then to Katlyn (sp).  What does your approach to fracking and to natural gas mean for this coal miner in Kentucky?  What can we offer him if he's watching?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah, I mean - well, what I - I think what matters for him is not really environmental regulations or innovation, per se.  It's having a strong social safety net.  I mean, that's a progressive value that we hold and we don't see it as separate from having an environmental agenda.  In other words, we need to have strong protections and care for people who are laid off.  

I - my mom grew up on the farm in Indiana, my - one of my cousins, he was the last - we lost that.  I mean, the farm's gone. They just couldn't sustain a family farm anymore, in the '90s.  He moved his family to Florida, became an air conditioner repairman, and it was - you know, it was sad.  I mean, he really lost a way of life and, you know, sort of I wouldn't want to go be a farmer and don't sort of - you know, I think there's a progressive thing about being able to leave the farm and go the cities and pursue opportunities and for the kids to do that, but it's heartbreaking.  And I don't think there's anything - I don't think we should pretend like there's any simple answer to that problem.  But I do think there's - there is a way in which America has not been as generous, I think, as European countries have in terms of providing for people who are displaced by, you know, what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction, the process of technological innovation really wiping out whole industries.

MODERATOR:  Kate, what do you have to offer to Mr. Abbot (sp)?

MS. SINDING:  Yeah, I mean, I don't know that with respect to Mr. Abbot (sp) there's a lot of difference.  I mean, we're both talking about trying to find other opportunities for him to make a living and provide for his family that aren't dependent on developing what is unquestionably the dirtiest fuel source that - you know, on the planet.  And I - so, you know, I don't know that there's a lot that I would add.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  So both of you - maybe don't say that to him, though.  

MODERATOR:  Since we've agreed that gas is better than coal, Mr. Abbot (sp) is unfortunately the victim of this transition.  Is that fair to say?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  He's definitely the victim of the technological revolution.

MS. SINDING:  Unless we as a society can address his plight in such a way that we - in a comprehensive way and a thoughtful way, where we think about other alternatives for him.

MODERATOR:  OK.  I want to introduce you to our second character.  Her name is Sandy (sp).  She's a 30-year-old farmer from Sierra Leone.

She lives outside Waterloo, in the Western Area Rural District, where less than 1 percent of the population has access to electricity.  The vast majority of residents, including Sandy (sp) and her children, depend mainly on wood fuel for cooking and kerosene for lighting.  Her lack of access to energy helps to keep her poor and vulnerable.  It also limits other economic and educational opportunities for her family, and it impacts her health and her life expectancy.

What does your approach to fracking or to natural gas, if anything, offer to Sandy (sp) and to her family?  I'll start with you, Kate, and then we'll go to Mike.

MS. SINDING:  I would say that our position doesn't really have any impact on Sandy (sp).  We're not saying no to natural gas or fracking, if that's an opportunity that Sierra Leone has and decides to exploit.  What we're saying - I guess this is where our position does have something to offer her - we're saying we would like to export the lessons that we've learned in this country to ensure that if it is going to be produced there, it is done a way that is safest - is the safest possible and imposes the fewest impacts on communities and society.


MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah, I think this issue of energy access has really been grossly overlooked by the environmental movement in the last 20 years.  I mean, you have - you know, most of the scenarios to deal with climate change really leave those folks out of our calculations.  We sort of assume they're going to stay energy-poor over the next several decades.

I think one of the great liberal achievements of the 20th century was the Tennessee Valley Authority, where really the government said, you know, the poor farmers of the Tennessee Valley - they were deforesting their - the surrounding region, they were suffering from soil erosion, they were suffering from malaria - a lot of the problems that are similar to the problems being experienced in Sierra Leone.  The government came in, and they said, we're going to help this region to develop electricity, fertilizer, irrigation, and it became a model for the world of how government-funded programs to expand energy access are truly liberating - for women, for kids, for everybody in the region.

I think it would be great to see in groups like NRDC and the Sierra Club embrace the demand of universal grid electricity for everybody in the world.  Now cheap, reliable power - that's - that is the - I mean, that brings us so much, and we - so much we take for granted when we turn on the light bulb or throw our clothes in the washing machine.

MODERATOR:  So if we all agreed we wanted to get there -


MODERATOR:  - we could then debate, does fracking get us closer?  How does it?  How doesn't it?  But we would be going towards some common goal.

MS. SINDING:  I think that's right, and I don't think it's fair to suggest that NRDC doesn't think about these issues.  We do.  And what we're interested in is providing access to energy that is developed in the cleanest possible way; that is most protective of communities, of the environment largely; and that addresses the larger climate crisis that we all face.

MODERATOR:  Thanks, Kate.

So I want to just introduce us to our third person, Maria Rivera (sp).  She's a 42-year-old fast food worker from upstate New York who earns minimum wage at the two restaurants that employ her part time.  She lives with her husband and two children in a depressed area that has been identified as a potential site to drill for natural gas.

If fracking is approved in New York state, Maria and her family would face the environmental and economic consequences.  What does your approach to fracking and to natural gas mean to this fast food worker from upstate New York?

Michael and then Kate.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Right.  Well, it's hard to know exactly.  Can we - do we know where she lives?  (Chuckles.)  Like a -


MODERATOR:  Make it up.

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah.  I mean, I think - obviously I think it's a great case, because obviously, like, if there's jobs in the natural gas industry, her husband or she herself could really benefit from it.  The schools could benefit from the additional revenue.  It's a huge source of economic development.

Like I mentioned earlier, I mean, I don't know that Obama would have won Ohio if you hadn't had the economic boom that Ohio's had over the last several years, thanks to the shale revolution.  

Obviously, you know, if it's a situation where, you know, she doesn't get any jobs or any benefit from the natural gas revolution and has to have her property right next to a very noisy and, you know, trafficked area, then it could be negative.  So I guess it depends a little bit on that.  But I think it's a great case, because it gets out?? sort of the dual side of - the dual nature of this challenge.

MODERATOR:  Kate, do you see those two sides to the challenge as well?

MS. SINDING:  Yes and no, in the sense that I think that the economic benefits are overstated and that the economic costs, which are very real, socioeconomic and directly economic costs on communities, are insufficiently acknowledged and factored into the overall economic picture.  

We have - we have supported an ongoing moratorium on New York.  We believe that particularly in an era where you've got a glut of natural gas and prices are incredibly low, and given that there are still, we think, significant unanswered questions about the scope of the risks and whether and if so how they can be managed and what kind of regulatory resources you need to have in place to do that.  We should take advantage of the fact that we've got a political situation that enables us to take a pause here in New York and so - that that's - that's where we are.  

At the same time, as I indicated earlier, that does not mean that we're not absolutely conscious that that there are real economic development issues that face people throughout the Southern Tier of New York and into the Catskills region, and we need all - we need to develop other ways of addressing those economic development priorities.

MODERATOR:  And the moratorium?  Let her face the risks but reap the benefits?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Yeah, I think that - you know, like I said, I think we need more natural gas if we're going to really replace coal.  I mean, coal's still 38 percent of our electricity mix.  We've gone down from 50 to 38 (percent).  It's a great start, but getting the - you know, continuing to get rid of the rest of it is going to require a lot of gas, just like saving the whales required a lot of kerosene for lamps and it required electricity.  And yes, it will have consequences, and I think we'll deal with those.  

But I think we need - if you - if you really take seriously coal's impacts - again, 13,000 premature deaths in the United States every year, just from coal - then you can't have it both ways.  You can't say we're for phasing out coal and then imagine there's some way to do without expanding gas production.

MS. SINDING:  I just disagree, and I've made that point, I think, repeatedly.  We don't think you need to have significant expansion of gas to phase out coal, which - nobody can question that NRDC's got an incredibly strong and long-running commitment to doing that, and we're not - we're not ever going to abandon that commitment as long as coal continues to be burned.

But we need to go all in on efficiency and renewables, and we don't need to see a vast expansion of gas production.

MODERATOR:  Let me go to our last two questions.


MODERATOR:  If you were the global energy czar, what would your policy or plan be for energy access and ecological sustainability?  You could decide right now - total moratorium on fracking, double down on it, renewables, efficiency - you could sort of write the game plan.  I know it's a little unfair, but in a minute each, how would you do it?  (Laughter.)

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Go!  (Chuckles.)

Kate, or - do you want to take it first?

MS. SINDING:  No, I'm going to let you take - (laughs) - go on and take - (inaudible).  (Laughter.)


MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Innovation, innovation, innovation.  I mean, look, the poorest people in the world, who don't have access to modern energy - they need to get it.  I'd love to see them get it from gas or renewables or nuclear, rather than from coal or hydro, but if - we are not in a position to go tell the poorest people in the world they can't have the same kind of energy that we consume.  So they need energy.  That's the top - that's the top - really, arguably, that's the highest moral priority for all of us.

The second thing is to accelerate the transitions away from the technology you're already using.  So if you're using coal, accelerate that transition to gas and renewables and nuclear.  I think if you're using gas, if you're wholly dependent on gas, move to renewables and nuclear.  If you're heavily dependent on wood and dung, move to modern energy.  

And - you know, and I think obviously that's in a framework of sensitivity and care around the negative consequences of those transitions.  But if you think climate change is our most serious global threat, then you've got to quickly move people through these energy transitions in a way that really makes sense with the way we've been doing it for the last 200 years.

MODERATOR:  Kate, if you could make the call, how would we move forward?

MS. SINDING:  I'm going to sound like a broken record, and I think I've said it already.  I mean, I - you know, if I could make the call, what I would say is we need to go all in in terms of our policies, in terms of subsidies, to move us as quickly as we - possible to - as we possibly can to an energy economy that's dominated by true clean energy sources.  

I don't think, with respect to fracking, that we need to do anything to encourage it.  In fact, our position and - is that we should put a pause on expanded fracking until we can answer the questions about the risks, so we can identify what safeguards are needed.  And that's where our priority has to be if we're going to meet the climate crisis.  

MODERATOR:  OK.  To wrap us up, what might surprise our audience that you would expect to see happen in the arena of climate change and fracking in the next few years?  Like an insider's view - what's something that might happen that would surprise people?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Oh, I went first last time, Kate, so this has got to be -

MS. SINDING:  Wow.  


MS. SINDING:  If - that's such a hard question to answer because if we'd been having this discussion five years ago and, you know, you had - you had asked me that question, I would have said we could have had a moratorium on fracking in New York state, and we could have - you know, the issues associated with the production of it could have risen to a level where they're being taken without - with that kind of seriousness.  And I would - you know, I mean, I would have said it was crazy that that could have happened.

I don't know where this is going to go in five years.  As we've - you know, as this conversation has elucidated, this is an incredibly complicated issue.  While we're sitting here debating this, the industry is innovating, the clean energy industry is innovating.  You know, where this takes us in five years I don't think - it's very hard to answer.

MODERATOR:  Michael, insider view?  What might surprise us in the next five years?

MR. SHELLENBERGER:  Boy, it's a great question.  Yeah, I think that what will surprise is how much more quickly countries are going to go to tap their shale resources.  

You know, sometimes things take longer and sometimes they move faster.  The shale revolution - a lot of people thought, you know, we were really running out of gas.  And so that was sort of the big surprise, and now people kind of go, well, it's hard to get out of other places.

And I think we've seen in recent weeks the English government, the U.K., is moving very quickly into gas.  We start seeing that in other parts of Europe.

And I think one of the most hopeful things that's happening anywhere is what's happening in Africa.  People had really been writing off sub-Saharan Africa as a place that really wasn't going to develop, and in fact what you're seeing is higher levels of economic growth, lower levels of infant mortality, better work combating really old infectious diseases.  So I think we should look to sub-Saharan Africa to give us some nice surprises.

MODERATOR:  OK.  Well, thank you both for spending the time with us for going back and forth and helping us try to understand these complex issues, for being willing to engage in a healthy debate.  

We look forward to continuing the conversation online at  And please join me in thanking our speakers, Kate Sinding and Michael Shellenberger, with a round of applause.  (Applause.)


Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe: