In Harbin, China, a city of 11 million, pollution recently reached levels so appalling that visibility dropped to 30 feet. Kids were held home from school and highways were closed. China’s breakneck economic growth has come at a large environmental price, worse but similar to that paid by American industrial cities like Pittsburgh not so long ago.
Pennsylvania can teach China two lessons about industrial pollution. The first is not to consider serious air pollution a necessary cost of “progress,” especially given the costs to clean up the problem after the fact. The second is to get on with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to produce clean natural gas to replace at least some of the highly polluting coal used in power generation.
Pennsylvania also can be a partner in improving China’s environment by selling the country clean natural gas and fracking technology.
China relies on coal for 70 percent of its electrical power. The U.S. Energy Information Agency recently reported that China is now burning nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined.
However, the Chinese government, under increasing pressure from the public, is scrambling to address the pollution that is making some cities nearly unlivable. The concentration of fine particulate matter — a key measurement for air quality — was so bad in Harbin it reached a level 20 times greater than what the World Health Organization deems safe.
The Chinese need immediate substitutes for coal, and that’s where the U.S. shale-gas revolution enters the picture. Surging U.S. natural gas production from shale formations like the Marcellus in Pennsylvania is not only driving U.S. job growth but also providing significant environmental benefits. The Chinese have taken notice.
A new report from the EIA shows that increased use of natural gas in place of coal helped the United States reduce carbon emissions 12 percent between 2005 and 2012. Natural gas produces half the carbon emissions and just a fraction of the fine particulates when used to produce electricity in place of coal. The shift from coal to gas has U.S. carbon emissions at their lowest level since 1994.
While the United States may be the world’s leader in shale-energy production, China has the world’s largest shale-gas deposits. The Chinese are desperate to acquire American expertise to jump-start their own shale production.
They have invested billions of dollars in U.S. energy producers for just that purpose, but getting production going won’t be easy. There are challenges above and below ground that must be overcome. Still, major producers such as Shell Energy and Hess are pressing ahead. And it’s not just expertise that China needs, it’s also our gas.
The shale revolution has pushed U.S. natural gas prices to a fraction of those in Europe and Asia. Natural gas costs less than $4 per thousand cubic feet in the United States, versus about $15 in Asia. Our abundant supply of gas will soon allow us to become major exporters.
The Obama administration has approved four companies to construct liquefied natural-gas export terminals to send gas to countries that don’t have free trade agreements with the United States, such as China. More than a dozen export applications await review. Allowing additional exports will encourage increased domestic production of energy while providing a cleaner energy alternative to emerging markets that badly need it.
The shale-gas revolution has produced remarkable results in the United States, but its global potential is also promising. It could well be that our game-changing fracking technology will provide the Chinese a path to cleaner air and the world an important tool to address climate change.
It will also allow fracking states such as Pennsylvania to not only sell gas to China and other countries, but also to get paid for some of the technical expertise their industries have developed.
J. Winston Porter is an energy and environmental consultant in Savannah, Ga. He is a former assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.