Fracking leak hands Earth Day gift to green energy
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.