Fracking and China’s energy revolution | 水力压裂与中国能源革命

China is our essential partner on climate and energy. The Asia Society recently brought together five experts to discuss the role of fracking in China's energy future.

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From left to right: James West, Orville Schell, Ella Chou, Josh Fox, Jaeah Lee (Photo: Jingwen Tong)
From left to right: James West, Orville Schell, Ella Chou, Josh Fox, Jaeah Lee (Photo: Jingwen Tong)

The United States and China are the world’s two largest economies and emitters of carbon, with many overlapping interests. The fate of New York City, of Beijing, and of cities around the world hinges on future agreements between the two nations that will pivot their combined industrial might towards creating a global supply of affordable clean energy. City Atlas writer Jingwen Tong goes to university in Beijing, and she begins here a set of posts about the evolving conversation between the two societies.

The whole world has noticed the air pollution in China, and clearing up the air is a top issue for the Chinese government. The country is ready to stop relying on dirty coal, and fracking shale gas may seem like a silver bullet. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s estimate, China has the world’s biggest gas reserves and the country is now fracking at a head-spinning pace: three times as fast as the U.S.. However, will the onset of fracking in China really drive down its coal addiction? And what are the other environmental costs of fracking?

[pullquote align=”right”]Natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, and can reduce smog in cities, but it only helps on climate if the extraction process is free of methane leaks[/pullquote]On June 11, the Asia Society brought together a group of people who have all delved into the issue of fracking to discuss China’s energy future. The panel began with an exclusive preview of a yearlong investigation by Mother Jones and Climate Desk into China’s nascent fracking boom. Panelists included Mother Jones reporter Jaeah Lee; Asia Society’s Orville Schell; The Brookings Institution energy adviser, Ella Chou; and Gasland director, Josh Fox. It was moderated by Climate Desk producer, James West.

In an interview with the Asia Society, James West and Jaeah Lee compared fracking in China and the U.S.. Though China is estimated to own bigger shale gas reserves than the U.S., its reserves are more difficult to access due to deeper locations, complex terrain, and incomplete infrastructure. But the U.S. has helped China to overcome these obstacles with intergovernmental forums and private joint ventures to share knowledge about how to frack. Will this partnership have a positive outcome?

Orville Schell said in the panel, “China does not know what it has done to itself.” Perhaps America doesn’t know what it has done to itself either. As presented in the movie Gasland, an estimated 35% of the oil and gas wells in the U.S. are now leaking — leaked gas can escape into aquifers where people have private water wells. Worse, the chemicals employed in fracking can cause cancer, nervous system disorders, and birth defects. Josh Fox said in the panel that many fracking corporations in the States have hired public relations staff to cover up the water pollution caused by fracking and plant confusion in the public. The EPA is now researching the potential impact of fracking on drinking water sources. A draft report is expected to be released for public comment and peer review in 2014.

There is also concern about the respective effects of shale gas and coal on climate change. Ella Chou claimed that in the short-term shale gas will create more carbon emissions and therefore intensify climate change, but in the long-term it will cut carbon emissions slightly from what they would be with the continued use of coal. However, given that New York City is so vulnerable to climate change, Josh Fox explained that the city can’t stand 5 more years of high carbon emissions. Even if fracking will reduce emissions marginally in the long run, it won’t keep sea levels from rising.

In addition to gas leakage, scientists and engineers are now turning their attention to significant leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, in the process of fracking. “There are many, many, many possible leaking sources,” said Adam Brandt, a Stanford University professor of energy resources engineering. A methane leak can reverse the reduced carbon emissions that result from replacing coal or oil with natural gas. As the fracking boom continues to expand and the thousands of miles of pipelines get older, it’s a daunting challenge for U.S. to reduce methane emissions. 

China is facing a dilemma comparable to that of the U.S.: which problem is more urgent? Polluted air or polluted drinking water? Orville Schell believes that fracking is of some virtue for China because the air is reported to be more breathable in fracking areas (providing cities with a supply of natural gas) than in cities that depend on coal. James West and Jaeah Lee said in an interview with the Asia Society that fracking could mean “less toxic smog, less carbon emissions in the atmosphere and a new market for cheaper domestic energy if it can be done properly.”

[pullquote align=”left”]In a new trend, young people in China are increasingly focused on environmental issues[/pullquote]However, the harms of fracking have already begun to appear due to a lack of regulation of the process. West and Lee travelled to Sichuan Province of China where they heard local farmers complain about the scum floating on top of their well water. Moreover, the water pollution caused by fracking will intensify the current water scarcity in China. According to Ella Chou’s research, among the departments that monitor fracking in China, the water conservancy bureau is not included. To remind us that this is not a solely foreign concern, Jaeah Lee said, “We (Americans) should turn the question back and ask what federal standards do we have?” It seems that lack of universal standards and proper regulation are a serious and worldwide problem in the fracking industry.

But there is good news as well. West and Lee reported that during their travels in China they observed growing environmentalism, as evidenced by the many new environmental NGOs at the grassroots level. Young people in China are also invested in the need for sustainability. This growing awareness has pushed the Chinese government to amend its environmental laws to stress the importance of environmental performance of local governments, instead of only considering economic growth.

As Obama says, natural gas should only be a transition fuel from coal to a cleaner energy future. Fracking is not a silver bullet, but rather, a temporary bridge to cleaner and more sustainable energy. In the meantime, countries should collaborate to set up standards and proper regulation that minimize the potential harms of fracking.

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611日,美国亚洲协会邀请来自不同行业但都对水力压裂有深入研究的学者们齐聚一室,举办了一场名为水力压裂与中国能源未来的座谈会。与会的有来自母亲琼斯杂志的Jaeah Lee,亚洲协会的Orville Schell,布鲁金斯研究所的Ella Chou和纪录片《天然气之地》的导演Josh Fox。座谈会的主持人为气候台(Climate Desk)媒体的编辑和制片人James West。会议先以一个由母亲琼斯杂志和气候台媒体合作拍摄的独家预告短片拉开序幕。此短片深入调查中国水力压裂情况,拍摄历时一年之久。

在此前的一次与亚洲协会的采访中,被采访者James WestJaeah Lee对比了中美两国水力压裂开采情况的不同。尽管外界估测中国有着比美国更丰富的页岩气储量,但因为探明储量少,再加上中国复杂的地质和仍需完善的基础设施,所以实际开采的困难度比美国更高。通过政府间论坛以及私人合资企业间的合作,中美双方也在分享关于水力压裂的最新技术。但这种合作关系是否会带来积极的影响?

Orville Schell提道:中国并不清楚它在对自己的土地做些什么。在水力压裂对环境的负面影响问题上,也许美国也并不比中国清楚。正如纪录片《天然气之地》所揭露的那样,据估测,目前美国国内有近35%的油井和天然气井正在泄漏。而这些泄漏的天然气会渗入地下蓄水层,最终进入到居民的饮用水井中。更糟糕的是,压裂液中所使用的有毒化学制剂会给人体带来癌症,神经系统紊乱,新生畸形儿的种种安全隐患。纪录片导演Josh Fox称美国的许多水力压裂公司雇佣了大量公关来掩盖开采对居民饮用水带来的危害,试图迷惑视听。目前,美国环境保护局正在研究水力压裂对饮用水的潜在影响,其报告初稿将在2014年发表,以便公众评论和同行审查。

除了天然气泄漏外,科学家和工程师们正开始关注另一个问题:水力压裂开采过程中另一种强效温室气体——甲烷的泄漏。来自斯坦福的能源资源工程教授Adam Brandt说道:目前开采中存在着非常多的可能泄漏源。在水力压裂继续蓬勃发展的同时,数千英里的输气管道也正在老化,减少甲烷的泄漏和排放是目前美国面临的严峻挑战。

会议中提及的另一个问题是关于页岩气和燃煤对气候变化的不同影响。Ella Chou称在短期内页岩气会带来更多的碳排放量从而加剧气候变化,但从长期的角度看,使用页岩气能稍微减少因为燃煤而带来的碳排放量。然而,考虑到纽约市已是气候变化下非常脆弱的城市,Josh Fox认为纽约无法再支撑5年多的高碳排放量。即使从长远来看水力压裂开采能减少一定的碳排放,它也无法阻止海平面的上升。

中国也正面临着一个类似的两难之境:空气污染和饮用水污染,哪个问题更紧迫?Orville Schell认为水力压裂还是给中国带来了一定的好处。据报告,使用水力压裂开采的地区,空气相较其他依靠燃煤的地区而言一些较清洁一些。James WestJaeah Lee在此前与亚洲协会的采访中也认为水力压裂对中国的城市来说意味着更少的有毒雾霾,更少的大气碳排放量以及一个新的国内廉价能源市场

然而,由于水力压裂开采的相关法规仍不完善,开采的危害也已经开始显现。West和Lee提到他们在调查过程中所到中国四川省境内的一些小村庄里,当地农民抱怨他们的饮用水井上出现了浮渣。除此之外,由开采造成的水污染会加剧中国目前的水资源匮乏问题。根据Ella Chou的研究,在中国监督水力压裂的政府部门中,水利局并不在其列。值得警醒的是,这并不是仅存于中国的问题。Jaeah说道:我们(美国公民)应该反思自己,我们有什么样的联邦标准?统一标准的缺乏和监测法规的不完善似乎是目前广泛存在于世界各国水力压裂行业的严重问题。