Fracking leak hands Earth Day gift to green energy

April 21, 2011

By Christopher Swann
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Fracking didn’t quite get its Macondo moment. Chesapeake Energy’s fluid spill in Pennsylvania looks minor compared to BP’s Gulf of Mexico explosion exactly a year ago. All the same, the incident will galvanize critics of hydraulic fracturing, a process that releases natural gas from shale rock by blasting it with water, sand and chemicals. As well as deepwater oil, coal and nuclear operations have both had recent disasters. With Friday designated Earth Day, it’s a well-timed gift for renewable energy firms.

In April 2010, an explosion in one of Massey Energy’s coal mines killed 29 miners. Just weeks later, BP’s Macondo well started gushing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. And now, more than a month after Japan’s monster earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear plant is still leaking radiation.

This week’s blowout and leak in Pennsylvania’s Bradford County puts the latest technique to extract natural gas under scrutiny too. With thousands of wells now being drilled in the United States and big plans unfolding around the world, this is unlikely to be the last time frackers stumble.

And it gives proponents of greener energy a public relations opening. Natural gas has become the unintended nemesis of wind and solar energy in recent years. Rock bottom gas prices have made renewable projects look even pricier than they seemed before.

In addition to the PR opportunity, renewable energy firms can also finally showcase projects with the scale to rival fossil fuel burners and nuclear reactors. The Shepherds Flat wind project under construction in Oregon will boast 850 megawatts of capacity — close to the output of a typical atomic reactor. First Solar, a $12 billion energy firm, is building a 550 megawatt plant in California.

Green energy still has a mountain to climb. In America, for instance, wind and solar power still provide just 1.4 percent of the nation’s total energy diet. And although alternative energy sources are becoming cheaper, in many cases they still need subsidies. With belt-tightening going on in seats of government everywhere, that kind of help is under threat. But with the full range of traditional energy sources now on the defensive, wind and solar firms have a chance to seize the advantage.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

any studies on effects of extracting this amount of energy from the wind?–it just might be more damaging to the environment than any other source–keep in mind that if energy becomes cheaper more of it is used–that is what happened with led lamps and probably is happening with fuel efficient cars–more miles driven because it is cheaper to buy

Posted by ilaboo | Report as abusive

I think the oil, coal, and nuclear industries get a few subsidies as well. There’s two ways to go: the clean energy path or the dead end of fossil fuels. And I do mean dead.

Posted by operdoc | Report as abusive

I noticed you neglect the fact that the SF Wind Farm is estimated to take 77 years to repay the cost of building it and employing 35 people (under the best circumstances and including huge tax breaks), and that the life of the turbines is only 35 years.
Wind is a scam. The cost of those 850MW would be ridiculous. I guess we’ll get used to seeing the stars at night again.

Green Energy is a great goal, but to pretend that something is what it’s not helps no one and slows innovation.

Posted by moneywon | Report as abusive

Please check our blog on Hydraulic Fracking and it’s possible boon to business and hazard to environment and humans surrounding the industrial areas.

Posted by Conservastore | Report as abusive

The EPA ignores the methane being dumped into public drinking water by fracking and yet, this year, they have decided to regulate “oil spills” by farmers housing a small fuel storage tank on their farms. We now need to hire an engineer to certify our oil spill plan! What about BP and frackers? Nada. The height of this stupidity surfaced this week when they issued an “exemption” for spilled milk that contains animal fats. Meanwhile, Lisa Jackson shows up here in Iowa trying to appease ag critics of EPA. How stupid can you get????

Posted by iowafarm | Report as abusive

It is interesting to see a mix of comparative apparent costs of energy sources and a comment on the subsidies required by renewables.
What we forget in this comparison is to consider life-time costs of each form of energy and that, for the most part, it is still “free to pollute”.
One day we should indulge in the exercise of full costing, lifetime impacts and removal of subsidies from all energy types. I bet the conclusion will be a different one.

Posted by lecourt | Report as abusive

Fracking is like injecting Lysol into your spetic tank to extract methane.

Posted by Harry079 | Report as abusive

The “green energy sources” like wind and solar are diffuse. So they have the disadvantage that a huge amount of land area would be required to produce a significant proportion of our energy needs.
For example, the Shepherds Flat wind project uses 30 square miles to produce the 850 megawatts. That’s the peak capacity. Since the wind doesn’t blow all the time, the actual estimated average output is 228 megawatts(from Wikipedia’s figure for the annual energy output of this wind farm).
People in the United States use an average of 250 kWh per day; that’s industrial and government power use as well as personal use (number from the book “Sustainable energy without the hot air”). There are about 310 million people in the United States.
If you scaled up the Shepherds Flat wind project to supply the United States’ energy needs, it would occupy 424,890 square miles! That would be a square 650 miles on a side!
Wind and solar, if they were scaled up to become a major contribution to our energy needs, would cause a huge environmental impact because of using so much land, and they no longer look all that “green”.

Posted by fallingup | Report as abusive

Fracting is not the way to go, this is Bush polices, and your can’t drink the water and your can light it up with a match.

Posted by Palmquist1 | Report as abusive

Somebody upthread says the SF wind farm will take 77 years to repay. So I Googled it; the farm will cost $2B to build, a comparable nuke plant would cost around $10B UPFRONT- then there are all those pesky operational costs and problems that crop up years and decades later, where as a broken wind turbine you just tear down [in 35 years after it’s been making nearly free electricity all that time]. Of course, covering the entire west coastline with wind farms wouldn’t take care of the energy problems we’re facing… The other point: Does it really matter how many long or short term jobs are created by the wind farm? Is there a minimum number of jobs needed to satisfy some cost per watt formula and make an energy plant a good thing? puhleeze

Posted by philbrabe | Report as abusive

There is another enormous, readily available, perfectly clean alternative available for phasing in any time we grow up and decide to take make a little effort. It’s called efficiency, something that we’ve seen more and more of, especially when the financial incentives increase, and the best way to achieve it is to let these uncomfortably high energy prices keep motivating us. From the thousands of little efforts we can each make each day (turn off unused transformers, lights, appliances, cut down on driving miles whenever we can, and drive a little slower when we do) – up to the bigger things we can do – shop for the most fuel efficient new vehicles, insulate the house… innovations like the Kite Sail -will-have-kite-sail-on-30000.html

For what it’s worth, energy that doesn’t get used in the first place saves the utilities having to use the most expensive available power sources.

Posted by UncleNed-222 | Report as abusive

[…] the environmental impacts of shale gas production.  As I began to write this post on Earth Day, a leak was been reported in a shale gas operation in […]

Posted by Is Shale Gas-Part of our Clean Energy Future? | Report as abusive