Law and Policy for Sustainability
New Horizons in Environmental and Energy Law series
Edited by John C. Dernbach and James R. May
Chapter 13: Is shale gas part of a sustainable solution to climate change? A factual and ethical analysis
This chapter examines the extent to which natural gas can be characterized as an acceptable part of a solution to climate change as both a factual and ethical matter. The chapter begins with an examination of the arguments often made by proponents of increasing natural gas combustion as a fuel source for electricity production about the climate change benefits of switching from coal to natural gas. The chapter then explains that proponents of natural gas combustion usually claim that because shifting from coal to natural gas combustion will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of energy produced, natural gas produced from fracking is an acceptable “bridge” fuel in efforts to reduce the threat of climate change. Next, the chapter identifies assumptions about the benefits of switching to natural gas combustion that the United States and the State of Pennsylvania have made in discussions of their climate change policies. The chapter then identifies two controversies about claims being made about climate change benefits of switching to natural gas, namely, first unresolved methane leakage rates from natural gas production, and second, the urgent need for the world to move rapidly away from the use of all fossil fuels including natural gas to avoid catastrophic climate change even if methane leakage rates are low. The chapter next reviews these controversies through an ethical lens. The ethical analysis includes a review of the obligations of the United States and Pennsylvania to reduce their greenhouse GHG in light of a remaining limited carbon budget available to the entire world if the international community hopes to avoid dangerous climate change. The analysis concludes that natural gas produced from fracking cannot be considered ethically acceptable sustainable energy in the absence of policies that ramp up non-fossil fuel use as quickly as possible while reducing energy demand aggressively. The chapter also concludes that because neither the United States nor Pennsylvania has adopted policies geared to ramp up non-fossil fuel energy production and energy efficiency programs as quickly as possible, the current reliance of these governments on natural gas as a bridge fuel does not pass ethical scrutiny.
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