May 19th, 2013
07:00 AM ET

Could fracking in China be a climate game changer?

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By Global Public Square staff

We have been thinking about an idea in the opinion pages of the New York Times to tackle one of the great challenges of our times: cutting carbon emissions to slow down climate change. It would result in the single largest reduction of CO2 emissions globally of any feasible idea out there. But there are a couple of hitches. Let's explain.

Here's the idea: it's time to help China master fracking safely.

By now it's clear that fracking (the process of extracting shale gas) has dramatically lowered America's CO2 emissions. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2006, a fifth of our electricity came from natural gas, while almost 50 percent came from coal. By 2012, natural gas had increased its share to 30 percent of our electricity. Coal's share dropped to 37 percent. The change was because of fracking: over that same period, shale gas production grew 800 percent.

The reason this shift is important is that coal is the world's dirtiest source of energy – both in its emissions of CO2 and particle pollutants. Thanks in large part to our reduced dependency on coal, U.S. CO2 emissions hit an 18-year low in 2012. U.S. emissions fell over the last five years by more than all of Europe's did. So – and this is the first hitch – environmentalists have to understand that, whatever the fantasies, natural gas is in reality producing a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions.

But now the second hitch. Why is it a good idea to help what some consider our greatest rival catch up with us? Why should we help China copy our winning formula?

The answer is simple: it's a win-win scenario.

In the past two decades, despite global investments in clean energy, the International Energy Agency says that net-net, the world's energy consumption has gotten cleaner by only 1 percent. We've essentially made no progress. Why? Well in large part, it is because of the means by which China is powering its super-fast growth. IEA data shows that if you exclude China, global consumption of coal has increased only slightly in the past decade. China, by comparison, has more than doubled its consumption. It now burns nearly as much coal as the rest of the world, combined. And it won't stop there. Every week, it opens new coal plants, leading to increasingly polluted and hazardous air. This, of course, is not just China's problem…but the whole world's problem.

As it turns out, we're not the only ones sitting on top of a shale gold mine: China actually has shale gas reserves that are nearly 50 percent larger than ours.

Beijing is going to try and mine these reserves in every way it can.  But many experts worry that China lacks the experience and technology to frack effectively. As important, it really has no understanding of how to frack safely. Here in the United States, we have environmentalists and a free press to push authorities to regulate and monitor this very new industry. China, on the other hand, may not have the same checks and balances.

This is why the United States needs to share its expertise, not keep it secret.

One of the perennial dilemmas at any climate summit is how to wean developing countries off of the dirtiest forms of energy. China can – understandably – argue that its overriding priority is growth. As the last few decades have shown, a fast-growing China translates to a fast-growing world. A cleaner China would have a similar impact.

Topics: China • Uncategorized • What in the World?

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soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. mememine69

    Did Bush issue CO2 threats to my children's lives? What have we become?
    Since science gave us pesticides making environmentalism necessary in the first place, just how close to unstoppable warming will science take us before they say their climate crisis WILL happen not just might happen? Not one IPCC warning isn't swimming in "maybes". Not once has science ever said their crisis was inevitable, just "could be". If science stopped saying “maybe” and started saying “inevitable” all debate would cease because if it’s not “inevitable” it’s not a crisis. Deny that.

    “Climate change has moved into a new and highly dangerous phase and is now the most urgent issue confronting the world,” said Ian Dunlop, member of the Club of Rome and Deputy Convener for the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil.

    "urgent phase" and "dangerous phase" and "has moved into a phase"
    "evetentual" "imminent" "inevitable" "unavoidable" "impending"

    Since the scientists have said for 28 years that their climate crisis is NOT as real and eventual as they say comet hits are, what is it then? And let's spare the little tiny catastrophic climate crisis for a Harry Potter movie.

    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.
    *Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).
    *Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.
    *Obama had not mentioned the crisis in two State of the Unions addresses.

    May 19, 2013 at 8:20 am |
    • vonrock

      urgent phase" and "dangerous phase" and "has moved into a phase" like our pres. leading from behind/ass.

      May 19, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • sojourndave

      Funny. I saw virtually the identical comment on NPR posts a couple days ago.

      Who's being so busy with denial?

      May 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
  2. Fracking is NOT safe

    In a world that is shifting one harm for another- it is dangerous for a respected journalist like you to advocate fracking when it has been shown to be dangerous. Please review the data and stop siding with the oil companies in keeping their profits. Lets look to less harmful ways of supplying energy – like renewable wind and water energy production. Can we please stop advocating for the oil companies because they refuse, like cigarette companies, to admit the harm?

    May 19, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • stanmill

      go ride a bike. fracking is 99% safe. people like you talk the talk, but i bet you use a ton of energy.

      May 22, 2013 at 12:49 am |
  3. vonrock

    Here's the idea: it's time to help China master fracking safely. maybe we should find out what how first.

    May 19, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  4. rightospeak

    Propaganda article paid for by the fracking industry. Fracking poisons underground water. This article is similar to articles written by nuclear energy fat cats to promote building of more nuclear plants while Germany is closing theirs. Generation of electricity using nuclear energy is NOT economical unless subsidized by a government. Unfortunately, oligarchs own most of the media , wealth and promote what suits them.

    May 19, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  5. rightospeak

    Free press ??????What nonsense ! Anyone trying to write truth usually gets fired and there are not many heroes left- they are only servants of the very rich that own the media.

    May 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  6. Dan Graustein

    I find it hard to believe that you are assuming that fracking is safe. Is oil and/or gas more important than fresh water? Why would we trust the same companies (Haliburton, Exxon, Embridge, etc.) that brought us the biggest environmental disasters in the last several decades? What are the chemicals that are used for fracking and why is that industry exempt from the Clean Water Act? We need to reduce our (worldwide) use of fossil fuels. As I am writing this, you are now speaking to Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt. We need to look at revolutionary energy solutions that would rival those that you are discussing with these gentlemen in the digital technology. Some of these energy solutions already exist, but you don't seem to hear about them. Have you ever heard of solar air conditioning? Every major climate control manufacturer has these products now. How about solar hot water heaters? Why would we have battery powered cars as opposed to powering the roads (Like slot cars.)? Which is more efficient? Can you power the roads with the unused rights-of-way next to the pavement? We need to think differently.

    May 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  7. sojourndave

    Good topical stuff, but a bit seems overlooked. Am I misunderstanding?

    Every carbon atom burned joins with oxygen to become a carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide molecule, and goes into the air. We use fossil fuels, from coal to natural gas, because they are rich sources of carbon which can be burned to generate power. Carbon is the necessary element, and it only burns by oxidizing.

    For sure coal releases a great deal of dirty stuff, including toxic dirty stuff and suffocating dirty stuff. For that matter, diesel fuels release microparticles (essentially soot) which damage lungs. Coal must be more costly to transport, per burnable pound of carbon atoms, relative to natural gas. Et cetera.

    Natural gas is (pretty) clean, especially by comparison. I guess it packs a lot more carbon per pound, making transporting it and burning it to generate power more efficient. I don't know what all else, but surely Fareed is accurate to call it cleaner.

    However, every carbon atom burned combines with oxygen and goes into the air. The carbon/air/greenhouse problem continues to increase. Shouldn't this be clarified in the same discussion which touts cleaner air?

    It is obvious that we would have a calamitous collapse if we simply stopped using the energy from fossil fuels. Those which pollute less, are cheaper to transport, and are more efficient to use are much preferable to smog-choked habitats coming from the non-gas fuels.

    But the presentation almost misleads the naive listener into the impression that "clean" natural gas will spare the greenhouse problem. It won't. Reporters addressing the issue really ought to be cautious about that. Fracking for natural gas is a stopgap necessity, but it is not a sufficient solution to our long term problems.

    We need it, we must have it, right now, or humanity will face an unprecedented universally devastating irrecoverable calamity. But when does "right now" end? The impending greenhouse planet is pretty ominous too. Please address what needs to come, sooner rather than later, after we get done with "right now."

    Please don't separate reports of clean air energy advances from greenhouse energy consequences. Emphasize the former when it's topical, but at least add the footnote on CO2. Similarly, when addressing climate change, keep a footnote about our current absolute dependence on fossil fuel use.

    May 19, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
  8. Evan Lay

    This scenario completely ignores the energy inputs required to extract Tar Sands oil, which actually exceed their energy value. It also ignores the external costs associated with fracking, especially contamination and pollution, and incorrectly asserts that this is a new technology (old, but used horizontally and with explosives and chemicals new) and that we have mastered it and can employ it safely. Fareed, whose pipe are you puffing on?

    May 19, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  9. Allen Purcell

    If you need fracking know-how or the more technical aspects of building nuclear warheads just ask China's army unit, known as Unit 61398.

    May 19, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  10. sojourndave

    Is it in any way useful to "soundoff?" It has no health benefit for me, I am not obsessive enough to vent pointlessly, and I want to know if this registers anywhere beyond an intern's (unforwarded) monitor screen. If there's no actual dialogue, I'll skip it.

    If you are mindfully screening out the 90% which is crap, but I pass that barrier and contribute something, I'll chime in. Please give a hint.

    May 20, 2013 at 2:33 am |
  11. j. von hettlingen

    Environmentalists in Europe adopt an enhanced precautionary approach to fracking and are concerned about its impact. They believe all renewable energy options need to be explored and it has not yet been proven to be a safe and responsible source of energy.

    May 20, 2013 at 4:12 am |
  12. Noilious

    fracking frakafrak frakers fracking frackem

    May 20, 2013 at 7:52 am |
    • Maersk

      You seem to be suggesting that Fareed should help his fellow Indians how to finger their azz correctly.

      May 20, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  13. Andrew

    Why should we NOT help China copy our winning formula? - 1. copying is not legal. 2.The answer is simple: it's NOT a win-win scenario - USA can not win, if it does not abandon the China project.

    May 20, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  14. Dow

    There already is a US company using fracing in China; that is Far East Energy ("FEEC", see They are fracing a coal bed methane field. Fracing is safe and has been used since at least the 1950's in Texas and Oklahoma to produce oil and gas safely as well as economically. While no energy production methods are 100% safe (neither nuclear nor coal, oil, nor gas), fracing rarely causes environmental problems. Far East Energy (FEEC) is currently fracing wells in China and producing increasing amounts of natural gas to Chinese industries and consumers.

    May 20, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  15. Ted Ward

    Finally the politically correct lame stream types are waking up and smelling the coffee of lower co2 emissions from natural gas versus coal. A few years ago, such a decrease in co2 was deemed so technically and economically hopeless or impossible that only carbon "cap and trade" could stop the increase in co2, and then only hold it from increasing. Now the big bad oil and gas industry and drilling has created a vastly superior solution. Imagine that.

    May 20, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • EVN

      Fracking to extract natural gas might well be helpting to with the reduction of the CO2 problem, but it is doing so at the risk of massive contamination of ground water, dispersement of toxic chemicals into the environment, and it is also potentially triggering seismic activity. It could very well turn out to be a case of the cure being as bad as, or even worse than the disease.

      As for helping China frack safely, perhaps we shouldn't. Fracking isn't safe to begin with, even in the U.S. But let China, with its near complete lack of environmental regard and safety concerns, plunge ahead and have a massive environmental disaster caused by fracking. Better for it to happen over there than here, and then once it does happen the rest of the world, including the U.S., can wake up to the environmental disaster fracking presents. And then finally we might shift our energy focus on renewable, sustainable and environmentally responsible projects, along with a major focus on conservation.

      May 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  16. finnessspringers

    In mid March I saw a long string of hopper cars full of coal bound for China waiting along the Columbia River for shipment to China. I think our coal is heading there to power their industry.

    May 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  17. Pete

    Breaking down the earth's mantle is not a safe exercise...

    May 20, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  18. bozourbana

    Fareed: You need to write columns to point to the evidence that fracking can be done without threatening ground water supplies.

    May 20, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  19. Ourland.

    Anti Natural Gas Cult,
    Look we cannot bring back the 60's for you folks. Those might have been fun times for you. Today we need to move forward with less dependency on dirty fuels. At the same time we need real POWER. Natural gas is the answer, don't give up on alternatives. Imagine if you took all the money you have spent and used toward something constructive, like alternatives. Get behind Natural Gas and help us, the true conservationist that take all countries into consideration. Be thankful we are willing to lease our land and do our part for cleaner air in the future.
    Recently you folks have been on this kick "they will export our Natural gas to CHINA"! I will take great pride in sending Natural Gas to CHINA knowing it was produced under the highest standard and for once something is stamped with: PRODUCT OF USA!

    Not in my back Yard (NIMBY) is none other than out right selfishness from a few.

    May 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • g.r.r.

      If it raises our energy prices to the point that we can no longer compete, then we fools. We do not have low labor costs and china manipulates their money. As such, it is in our best interest to actually keep our energy costs very low.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  20. Rui

    Why do you call the 9% reduction in carbon emissions in the US in 5 years (535 million tonnes in 6 billion tonnes) "dramatic", and the 13% increase in global consumption of coal excluding China in a decade (from 3.8 billion tonnes to 4.3 billion tonnes) "slight"?

    May 20, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • Rui BoAn

      Because over the last 10 years the global population has grown by over 10% in the last decade. If world population increases by 10% and people consume products and energy in the same pattern their parents did then coal use will go up by the same 10%.

      The fact that the US population and economy have grown in the last 5 years(minor economic growth) but still achieved a 9% drop in CO2 is huge.

      May 21, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • g.r.r.

      Because it is difficult to LOWER emissions when you were on track to increase it. Basically, had we stayed with the neo-con's track, we would increased by 13% or more as well. Instead, we lowered 9% which means about a 25% drop from where republican policies were taking us.

      That is actually IMPRESSIVE.

      However, the 13% increase in coal, excluding China, should also be considered dramatic. Since USA stopped and dropped, it means that others really increased theirs. As such, they should be called dramatic as well.

      May 23, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  21. Alan

    Fracking needs lots of water.. US has water but China doesn't. That's why it's not possible now to do that there..

    You really sound like a little kid sharing us his "brilliant save the world plan" without doing any research..

    May 20, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Rui BoAn

      But the perceived risk of fraking is polluting underground fresh water supplies. China does not have very much fresh water to pollute.

      May 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • g.r.r.

      China is LOADED with water. And if you exclude our greatlakes, China has more fresh water than does the USA. Sadly, theirs is now polluted.

      May 23, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  22. Fracking A

    What a bunch of Fracking SH!T. You don't need to be a scientist to figure out Fracking is bad.

    May 21, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  23. g.r.r.

    Well, I can think of several things, first:
    1) they can honor their treaty's that they made with Clinton and WTO and quit manipulating their money, quit subsidizing businesses to destroy the west, quit dumping of same products on western markets and remove the import barriers. These were all things that they PROMISED in the treaties to do.
    2) they can remove their illegal export barriers of rare earth minerals.
    3) they can allow our companies in to buy that gas and allow them in to drill it. After all, that is also part of the treaties that they are cheating on.

    Give them this tech? Have you not learned a thing from what happened when reagan pushed MolyCorp to 'GIVE' China the tech to mine rare earth? Or when Germany went into China with their MagLev?

    May 23, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  24. Phillip Mtya

    Look we don't have checks and balances. It's all one way the oil companies way. The Halliburton loophole allows them to pour chemicals down the well with no over-site. Even in the ocean off the coast of California. No government agency monitors their activity. Property values on frack sites go down on average 20% some companies refuse to loan to people who have leases on franking. Some families are experiencing nosebleeds like the Parr family of Texas. They received a 2.9 million judgment from Aruba Petroleum. The state of Florida ids suing for a sink hole caused by fracking. Then there's induced earthquakes caused by fracking . I mustn't forget the contaminated wells some have methane. Water supplies are dwindling and we continue to allow this total waste of water. France banned it, Norway paused for 18 months, for more studies on it's safety.

    June 10, 2014 at 12:17 am |

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