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Frack, Baby, Frack? Looking For Middle Ground Between Donald Trump And The Environment

Meeting Donald Trump halfway on fracking would be a partial win for the environment, writes Rich Barlow. Pictured: Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County. President-elect Donald Trump has not minced words about his approach to environment and energy policy: He loathes regulation, and wants to increase the use of coal, offshore drilling and fracking. (Ralph Wilson/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Meeting Donald Trump halfway on fracking would be a partial win for the environment, writes Rich Barlow. Pictured: Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County. President-elect Donald Trump has not minced words about his approach to environment and energy policy: He loathes regulation, and wants to increase the use of coal, offshore drilling and fracking. (Ralph Wilson/AP)
COMMENTARY

He’s a tease, isn’t he? On Monday, Donald Trump’s tête-à-tête with Mr. Environment himself, Al Gore, raised hopes that the president-elect who called climate change a Chinese hoax might dial down his jones for oven-roasting the planet. Two days later, he named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a mastodon trying to trample climate change regulations, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump seems best described by that old candy bar jingle: Sometimes you feel like a nut/sometimes you don’t. Pruitt is the latest bad note in a tone-deaf overture of crummy environmental appointments by the incoming president, whose nuttier ideas environmentalists will be fighting, routinely, for the next four years. But there’s one area where, perhaps, they can deal with the dealmaker-in-chief, if only both sides can curb their misguided preconceptions.

The days of fossil fuels are and must be numbered. Maybe Al Gore, now that he has Trump’s ear, can stress the relatively inexpensive price tag of curbing climate change.

Trump and the green movement should back fracking for natural gas.

This will take a mental reboot for both. Trump supports fracking — blasting open underground vaults of gas with high-pressure water and other liquids. But fossil fuel’s great cheerleader coupled his endorsement with one for coal-burning, too. As has been noted, that policy is literally impossible; suppliers of gas and oil compete with each other to fuel power plants, so any increase in one inevitably depresses use of the other. President Trump will have to pick one.

He may feel political pressure to side with coal. He made hay during the campaign of Hillary Clinton’s stumbling but spot-on utterance that “we are going to put a lot of coal miners out of work.” (She was referring to transitioning those workers into clean-energy jobs, but Trump doesn’t do nuance.) As a businessman, however, he should be able to read a balance sheet, and the coal industry’s record-low employment, owing to surging productivity and alternatives like cheap natural gas, is as immutable as gravity.

That brings us to environmentalists, many of whom are horrified by fracking, and not just because it continues fossil fuel dependence. Potential effects include drinking water and groundwater pollution, leaks of the greenhouse gas methane, and, in rare cases, earthquakes.

Yet smart environmentalists point out an inconvenient truth: The green power grid won’t arise overnight. Natural gas, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says, can “serve as a critical ‘bridge technology’ as we transition toward a sustainable, clean energy economy.” Critically, this energy source gives off fewer greenhouse gases than coal and oil. (Natural gas use generates 50 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than coal.)

What about those fearsome risks of fracking? Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, says that as long as fracking is restricted to areas suited for it, "There is a way that you can do it and manage the effects, minimize the effects, and keep the neighbors protected." Meanwhile, he says, requirements to capture leaking methane already have been imposed on natural gas wells.

Trump and the green movement should back fracking for natural gas.

Trump has telegraphed opposition to sensible regulation on fracking, of the kind suggested by the UCS. Most wells, however, are on state- and privately owned land, and states aren’t powerless here, as demonstrated by New York’s ban on all fracking. More rational state policies of fracking-with-safeguards of the kind Krupp and the UCS suggest could bypass both White House neglect and New York-style overreaction.

Let’s be clear: The days of fossil fuels are and must be numbered. Maybe Al Gore, now that he has Trump’s ear, can stress the relatively inexpensive price tag of curbing climate change. But appointments like Pruitt’s suggest that, unlike gas-holding rock, Trump’s mental blackout vis-à-vis the planetary interest is impenetrable. Lawsuits and lobbying against his reign are surely in our future. But meeting him halfway on fracking would be a partial win for the environment.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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