Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Life is sweeter than you think in 2014…

Jokingly, Rao pointed out that Americans are starting 2014 with an optimistic outlook:

(…) it’s tough, but let’s just write off polar bears and groundwater pollution from fracking already and move on.

But life is even sweeter than Rao thinks. Indeed, polar bears are not going extinct contrary to what the press and government research told us for the last few years:

A narrative of imminent polar bear extinction pervaded the analysed material. Estimates of current numbers were framed to suggest that polar bears are experiencing cataclysmic decline. (…)

In the 1960s, scientific estimates, based on numbers of pelts sold historically to the Hudson’s Bay Company and other traders, estimated a global population of 5000 wild polar bears. It is impossible to compare these figures with the current estimates of 20,000-25,000, due to the improvements in monitoring methods and technologies, greater numbers of polar bear scientists, and greater collaborations with indigenous northerners. However, (…) it is widely accepted that bear numbers have, at least until recently, been on the increase and that, at least historically, polar bears have not existed in greater numbers. (Tyrrella and Clark, 2013)

Tyrrella and Clark do not tell us to go hunt down polar bears. If we want to keep them around, we have to take sensible measures. However, they are simply not going extinct.

What about fracking and the resulting shale gas? It is true that there has been at least one case of methane water contamination by some company that did not follow sensible guidelines. However, methane is non-toxic. And methane naturally occurs in drinking water. People reported bubbles of methane in their wells as far back as then XIXth century. The real problem with methane is that it is a potent greenhouse gas: we would rather not release it in the air needlessly.

What about the toxic chemicals used as part of fracking? It does not end up in the drinking water:

Many claims of contaminated water wells due to shale gas extraction have been made. None has shown evidence of chemicals found in hydraulic fracturing fluids. (The Royal Society, 2012)

Of course, hydraulic fracturing uses lots of water and some nasty chemicals. We would rather not have such technologies. But everything is relative. Nasty chemicals are involved in making the electronics you are using to read this blog post. Overall, hydraulic fracturing is clearly positive:

Globally, the [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas is likely to be smaller than the coal footprint. Thus, a shift would slow global warming and decrease related cost for climate change adaptation measures – assuming all other factors remain constant. (…) Over the entire lifecycle, (…), power from coal consumes more water than power from shale gas (…). Shale gas drilling also causes less surface disturbance than coal mining. (Jenner and Lamadrid, 2012)

We should keep on studying fracking and we need sophisticated monitoring techniques. However, it is not any more dangerous than thousands of other industrial activities. And it pollutes a lot less than burning coal!