Intelligence Squared US, an Oxford style debate program modeled after a London program of the same name, recently chose to discuss the following motion – No Fracking Way: The Natural Gas Boom is Doing More Harm Than Good.
In between trips to the Children’s Museum of Richmond, across Southside Virginia to toss out the contents of our refrigerators and to rescue some cats, to the Virginia Aquarium, and to the beach, I managed to watch the archived video of the debate. It was fascinating for an energy geek, but also worth watching for anyone who prefers a thoughtful, well-moderated discussion about a complex issue over the kind of shouting that often passes for a debate program on popular media outlets. If you prefer to read debates, here is the link to the transcript.
There were two teams; one for the motion (which was phrased so that someone for the motion was actually against the booming use of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock for natural gas extraction) and one against the motion. The studio audience voted both before and after the debate with three choices – for, against or undecided. The winner of the contest was declared based on the shift between before and after voting; presumably the people who provided the most cogent arguments would change the most minds.
Since the debate has been available for several days, I am going to risk being a spoiler; here are the results of the studio audience voting.
Based on the swing of 15%, the “for” team was declared the winner. It is important to note that the “undecided” vote nearly vanished; this topic is not one that allows much middle ground once you have heard the arguments.
There is a continuing vote being taken online, but that one does not provide a before or after choice. As of 5:17 EDT on July 5, 2012, the online tally is 80 for the motion (believing that the fracking enabled gas boom has done more harm than good) and 152 against the motion (believing that the gas boom has done more good than harm).
I just cast my vote for the motion, but I am pretty sure that my reasoning would surprise the debaters on both sides. Like Deborah Goldberg on the “for” side, one of the things that has bothered me most about the fracking boom is the fact that it is a boom – the speed with which development is taking place has outrun the market, resulting in prices that are too low for profitable operation.
It is bad for the environment when people who are engaged in potentially hazardous industries are squeezed at the margins; in that situation it is a very human tendency to resist every improvement that might cause costs to increase. Even if the increased cost seems small to people outside of the business, it is quite possible that it will make the difference between a profit an a loss when there is already a small delta within which to work. Booms also have a disturbing tendency to pop without warning, leaving behind both an environmental and economic mess.
However, like Joe Nocera and Sue Tierney on the “against” side, I believe that low energy prices are beneficial to society, providing us with the power that we need to do good work and have resources left over for other activities. I am deeply concerned about the geopolitical implications of an inescapable dependency on continued injections of energy fuels via fragile supply and delivery systems controlled by people that have different priorities than I do.
I also agreed with the notion that natural gas is a wonderful raw material; the fact that its price is low enough in the US to encourage manufacturing companies that want to use it to build new factories in the US and provide good jobs domestically is a gift that can overcome a number of disadvantages.
On the “for” side, Kate Hudson’s clear distaste for the petrochemical industry and its jobs did not win any points from me. She is probably one of the people who actually thinks that the sun and the wind can produce useful power magically, without a massive need for manufactured materials, intrusive collection and delivery systems, and backup from systems that continue to burn valuable, but polluting hydrocarbons. She might even be one of the people who cannot understand why we need to make anything. Believe it or not, there are people who think that our economy could be healthy if we were all office dwelling lawyers.
If I was a short-term thinker who believed that 100 years is a long time, or that companies drilling for gas were led by patriots who are motivated to keep prices low for the good of the United States, or that the domestic resource base would actually last as long as the gas marketers claim, I might have sided with Joe Nocera and Sue Tierney’s position that the gas boom has been a wonderful thing. If I believed their argument that the only available choice for producing reliable power was between a modern combined cycle gas turbine and old, outmoded coal plants, I might have been swayed in their direction.
Of course, we all know that modern gas plants and old coal plants are not our only choices for reliable, affordable power. Not only are modern, low emission coal plants potentially competitive, but emission free, well proven, incredibly safe nuclear fission power is also a choice. The “for” side did not mention nuclear energy at all, but even the “against” side – which claimed to be for abundant, cheap power – damned it with faint praise. Sue Tierney exposed her antinuclear bias with the following statement that nearly qualifies as a ‘smoking gun’:
If China is able to use natural gas, they may not build as many Soviet-style nuclear reactors.
The last time I checked on China’s world leading nuclear program, it did not include any “Soviet-style” nuclear reactors. It does include a large number of US, French, German and indigenously designed reactors that build on what Chinese engineers have learned by being able to copy from our most modern and innovative designs.
The gas boom and the temporarily low prices that are associated with production that is slightly higher than demand has had a substantially negative impact on the shift in momentum that is required to revive the nuclear power plant construction business. Influential electric power company executives like John Rowe have put a kibosh on plans for new nuclear power plants; stating that they prefer to bet their company’s future on cheap gas. Rowe even told the attendees at the American Nuclear Society annual meeting that he believes cheap gas is going to make new nuclear uneconomic for a decade, if not more.
Aside: Of course, Rowe is clever enough to act differently. He and his company have accumulated the largest nuclear power plant fleet in the country and stand to benefit when the price of gas increases for all of their competitors. My analysis is that they are engaged in the reverse of Tom Sawyer’s method of making fence painting seem like an attractive endeavor. They are making nuclear seem unattractive so that there are fewer competitors. They are also promoting natural gas development so that rising demand causes the price of that fuel to skyrocket. End Aside.
As I explained in a recent Twitter exchange, I am pretty sure that excessive natural gas production is not an accident. There is a reason that large multinational petroleum companies have put substantial quantities of capital into gas drilling in the US – even when there are more attractive markets that can produce higher immediate returns on their investments.
Here is my theory – multinational petroleum producers know that the biggest long term threat to their continued market dominance is a revived nuclear power plant construction industry. They also know that the place that they need to worry most about is the US with its creative, free market system that encourages disruptive innovation. By driving down North American natural gas prices, they can cause a significant delay, increase costs for their competition and keep bright young engineers and businessmen out of a technology than will capture a profit-threatening portion of their market.
If entrepreneurial nuclear energy visionaries can look beyond temporarily low gas prices to understand the strategic moves of their competition, the future might be different than the one that is apparently envisioned by The Hydrocarbon Establishment. Not only will nuclear fission directly replace gas burning in power production, but it has the potential to eliminate the false perception of energy scarcity, displace oil directly in profitable markets like ocean transport, and provide the low cost heat energy needed for coal refineries to make a move into the liquid and gas fuel market.