Can Energy Extraction Actually Help Save the Planet?

In early July, a group of scientists announced an audacious plan that could provide a much-needed blueprint to fight the ill effects of climate change. According to researchers, planting more than a trillion trees around the world could soak up an astounding two-thirds of all emissions pumped into the atmosphere. 

It’s a cheap and easy(ish) solution with which almost no one could take issue. Yet, it’s a solution that will require time and cooperation to implement. In the intervening years, humanity as a whole has to come up with a stop-gap solution to climate change that doesn’t sacrifice the energy needs of a developing world. To hear the oil and gas industry tell it, energy extraction methods like hydraulic fracturing are the only way forward for a planet that increasingly craves more and more power. 

The most popular environmental argument in favor of oil and gas involves the term “bridge fuel.” Where environmentalists advocate a direct shift from the dirty power sources of the last century (looking at you, coal) to renewable resources like solar and wind power, oil and gas proponents argue that the easiest way to get to a world reliant on renewables is to use fracking to bridge the gap. 

Energy proponents claim that even as the United States actively works to reduce its carbon trail, other nations’ use of dirty energy is surging. China, for example, increased its oil and coal consumption by nearly 170 percent each year between 2000 and 2017. Oil and gas advocates claim that by providing nations like China with a source of energy that’s cleaner than coal, we can slowly wean the world onto a more environmentally-friendly power source. At least while we’re waiting for all those trees to grow. 

After all, the oil and gas sector argues that since fracking only burns half the number of greenhouse gases as coal, it’s basically safe. In fact, fracking has spurred a substantial decrease in carbon emissions, which is, admittedly, a good start. What’s more, the oil and gas sector already has established methods for extraction and transportation, a fact which appears to make importing oil and gas cheaper than starting a renewables project from scratch. 

On the surface, all of that sounds good. Fracking is better for the environment than coal. Everyone except coal miners acknowledges that. Fracking also provides cheaper energy to families around the world, a fact the industry loves to tout each winter when oil companies begin their annual “fracking saves lives” argument. 

Unfortunately, a little scratching is all it takes to see the whole oil and gas argument unravel. While the claims that fracking burns cleaner than coal are valid, they don’t take into account the amount of carbon that escapes into the atmosphere during extraction or the amount of so-called “fugitive methane” that leaks into the atmosphere during the transportation process, the latter of which can range from 1 to 9 percent of oil and gas’ lifetime emissions. 

Even more damning is the investment capital being poured into oil and gas development. Across the world, developing nations are spending billions of dollars on building shiny, new receptacles for all the fossil fuels being imported. These plants are designed to work for decades to come. Another way to say that is: developing nations are essentially trapping themselves into becoming reliant on oil and gas for a dangerously long time. In fact, environmental NGO The Global Energy Monitor says that the boom in oil and gas infrastructure spending in recent years could pose a direct threat to pro-climate initiatives. After all, if a developing country spends billions on oil and gas development, they’re not likely to turn around in a decade and convert their country to renewables. 

Every day, the oil and gas industry becomes more efficient, safer, and cleaner. That’s admirable, of course, but when it comes down to it, growth in the oil and gas industry — no matter how responsible — still carries the threat of irreparable climate damage. At this point, the only way to save the planet seems to be switching swiftly to renewables, no matter how many trees we plant.