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Hydrofracking is a gateway drug to energy literacy

I’m an educator who has spent a lot of time helping people to better understand slickwater horizontal high-volume hydraulic fracturing, the set of processes commonly called “fracking,” and how fracking compares to other energy sources. I’m in this line of work largely because I’m a lifelong environmentalist.

Given that, many people assume that I oppose fracking, but I’m neither for nor against it. Why? Partly because my colleagues and I promised our primary funder (the National Science Foundation) that we wouldn’t advocate, but also because it’s good educational practice. This is a complex and polarizing issue and there is currently no scientific consensus as to whether environmental and economic costs outweigh benefits. Learning about controversial issues from advocates may deepen convictions more than understandings. Further, we recognize that fracking has raised interest in where energy comes from. This is a teachable moment.

Strong opinions about fracking can form quickly. A counter-intuitive goal of our programming is to complexify the seemingly simple instead of simplifying the complex. This respects audience abilities for understanding dynamic and inter-connected systems related to energy use and production. Some of the most important things to understand about fracking aren’t about fracking, but rather about these systems.

For example, since 1998, two energy sources have accounted for most of the electricity produced in New York State. These two sources each provided 31 percent of our electricity in 2008. What do you think they are? What do you think are the top two sources for your state? I’ll ask you to pause and cast your vote before reading further.

The programming I lead starts with the above question. Fewer than 5 percent of the roughly 2,000 New Yorkers I’ve asked have correctly identified natural gas and nuclear power as the two largest energy sources for the state’s electricity. The most common responses are hydroelectric (the third-largest source) and coal (the fourth). Natural gas’ share has grown since 2008, and since gas heats most of our homes, it is – by far – New York’s largest energy source.

Why do I ask the question? First, if educators don’t connect to what learners already think about what they are trying to teach, those ideas are likely to remain unchanged. Second, I know that most people get the question wrong and it’s fun to ask questions that people get wrong (if done with humor and sensitivity). The third reason I raise as another question: Can we make informed decisions about a new energy source if we don’t know where we get our energy from now? No. Finally, the question leads to discussion of not only whether we should use a particular energy source, but also whether we should be using as much energy as we do. While my colleagues and I won’t advocate for or against fracking, we do advocate for using less energy.

Consider Ontario’s 6.3 gigawatt Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, just 170 miles from the Niagara River. It has more generating capacity than New York’s two largest power plants combined (the 2.4 gigawatt Robert Moses Hydro Plant at Niagara Falls and the 2.3 gigawatt natural gas Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens). To match Bruce’s capacity, it would take almost 10 of New York’s largest coal power plants (the 650 megawatt Somerset plant in Niagara County) or 3,800 large windmills – four times more windmills than in the entire state right now. And, if we wanted to extend the largest solar array in upstate New York – the University at Buffalo’s quarter-mile-long 750 kilowatt Solar Strand – we’d need to stretch it from Buffalo to Phoenix.

Clearly, none of these is actually good for the environment – each brings with it a different set of bad consequences. And all of them, even the renewables, take lots of non-renewable energy to build. It’s not a question of which is best for the environment. It’s a question of which (or which mix) is least bad. The only environmentally harmless energy source is the energy source you don’t use.

Don Duggan-Haas, of Amherst, is director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca and a member of the Western New York Environmental Alliance. Along with colleagues Robert Ross and Warren Allmon, he authored “The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale.”