Fracking, the Climate Debate and Misinformation


Natural gas isn’t holding us back from a carbon-free future. In fact, it may help us get there.

In 2007, as alarm about climate change escalated and environmentalists struggled to stop construction of a wave of new coal-fired power plants, the Sierra Club forged an unusual alliance. Over the next three years, the venerable environmental group received $26 million from executives at Chesapeake Energy to fund its “Beyond Coal” campaign. At the time, Chesapeake was a leading force in the still-obscure shale gas industry, which was just beginning what would be a meteoric rise. In hindsight, the odd couple—Oklahoma oilmen and California greens—seemed destined for divorce. But the underlying logic of their arrangement appeared sound. Because natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, if the United States could generate more electricity with it instead of coal, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would fall and natural gas companies would profit, delivering wins for everyone involved.

The Sierra Club was far from alone among environmental advocates in its enthusiasm for the boom in shale gas produced by fracking. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., writing in the Financial Times in 2009, declared that switching from coal to gas “is President Barack Obama’s most obvious first step towards saving our planet.” Joe Romm, a prominent climate advocate at the Center for American Progress, returned from a gathering of geologists that year to declare that natural gas “may be the single biggest game changer for climate action in the next two decades.” Such views were common.

And then it all fell apart. Kennedy now calls shale gas a “catastrophe.” Romm, tweaking claims that gas can be a “bridge” to a carbon-free future, now dubs it “a bridge to nowhere.” The Sierra Club, which broke ties with Chesapeake in 2010, now touts its “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign with the slogan “Dirty, Dangerous, and Run Amok.” The Environmental Defense Fund, a lonely voice in the environmental community in favor of gas as a part of a solution to climate change, has been attacked for “greenwashing.” At colleges across the country, campaigns are demanding divestment not only from coal and oil but also natural gas. (Michael Levi, Democracy Journal)

Also see our look at Lying Fractivists.