Fracking: Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which are often discussed together under the heading of “fracking” have led to a boom in oil and natural gas production in the United States. This is great for the American economy, but the environmental costs are questionable. But there is another paradox in fracking as well: while there are environmental costs to fracking, it is, on the whole, more environmentally friendly that many other energy sources, particularly coal.
I believe that Fracking is an important means of producing oil and gas, but it needs to be fully studied to determine the environmental dangers, and then properly regulated to mitigate those dangers.
Clean Coal: Clean coal is a catch all phrase for a variety of technologies that minimize the environmental impact of burning coal. As a former engineer, I find much of the clean coal technology to be quite interesting. But the reality is that in an era of cheap natural gas there are no clean coal technologies that are economically competitive or feasible.
The two main clean coal technologies are carbon capture and storage (often called carbon sequestration) and gasification.
Carbon capture involves installing equipment on the flue to capture most or all of the carbon dioxide produced from burning coal. The carbon dioxide is then stored, typically underground, by either simply injecting it into fissures in the earth, or by digging deep wells and injecting it to be absorbed deep underground.
Gasification turns coal into a synthetic natural gas. (The “gas” in gasification is the vaporous form of gas, not gasoline.) It is a process that involves pulverizing the coal and running it through a variety of steam and high pressure chemical processes to separate the usable carbon from the extraneous waste products. Both processes are highly complex and as a result are very costly. Coal is currently suffering because of the low price of natural gas, so there is no way that either clean coal process would be economically competitive.
Sustainable energy: The future of energy is solar and wind. The reality is that all of the carbon based products that we are currently using as energy sources (coal, oil, natural gas, wood and other fibers, etc.) are simply energy absorbed by the sun and stored in plants and animals.
According to most sources the sun provides enough solar power to provide all of the earth’s energy needs. The only problem is that the sun only shines on only half the planet at a time, and does not shine every day. The problem with both wind and solar is the timing and distribution of the energy source. See, e.g http://www.txses.org/solar/content/solar-energy-facts-you-should-know
One problem with all sustainable energy sources is that they are not currently price competitive with low cost natural gas generated by fracking. Currently all energy sources are the subject of a warren of government subsidies, credits and supports. I believe that sustainable energy should be allowed to compete on a level playing field. Preferably this would be done by eliminating most, or all, of the current energy subsidies, but in the alternative sustainable energy sources should be treated like all other energy sources.
Keystone XL Pipeline: Many progressives oppose the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring oil from the tar sands of central Alberta Canada to refineries in the United States. They complain about the environmental impact of the pipeline, which will run across the Great Plains. The major environmental problem with the project is not the Pipeline itself, it is the exploitation of the tar, or oil sands. The process of converting the sands to usable crude oil is energy intensive (which means that a great deal of energy must be used to process the sands to extract the oil) and it is devastating to the environment because the sands are surface mined. The exploitation of the tar sands is an environmental disaster. But once the oil has been mined and removed from the sand, the process of shipping it by pipeline has a minimal environmental impact. If the oil is not moved by pipeline, it will be moved on trains. Because of the slow development of pipelines, most oil from the region, which includes the oil fields of North Dakota, is shipped by train. The problem is that stopping the Keystone XL pipeline will only stop the oil from flowing into the United States by pipeline. It will not stop the project, and it will not stop the shipment of oil into the United States. The reality is that many thousands of tons of oil is already shipped across the country by train. Trains run on tracks, which frequently run directly through major urban areas. Pipelines, in contrast, are almost always run through rural areas. So the question is whether you want the oil moving through a pipeline in a rural area, or on a train that often goes through urban areas. The same holds true for the Bluegrass Pipeline that is being planned to moved LNG products through Kentucky. If these liquids are not moved by pipeline, it will be moved by train.
Note: the Keystone XL Pipeline project has been cancelled, but I believe the preceding discussion is pertinent to a variety of environmental issues.