A Free-Market Energy Blog

Dear EPA: Why is Wind Okay and Shale Gas Not?

By -- March 2, 2011

Remember all this? America is running out of natural gas. Prices will soar, making imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) and T. Boone Pickens’ wind farm plan practical, affordable and inevitable. Well, reality intervened. We are having an energy transformation, but just the opposite of what the non-market energy planners predicted.

Shale Gas Revolution

Barely two years later, America (and the world) are tapping vast, previously undreamed-of energy riches – as drillers discover how to produce gas from shale, coal and tight sandstone formations, at reasonable cost. They do it by pumping a water, sand and proprietary chemical mixture into rocks under very high pressure, fracturing or “fracking” the formations, and keeping the cracks open, to yield trapped methane.

Within a year, U.S. recoverable shale gas reserves alone rose from 340 trillion cubic feet to 823 tcf, the Energy Department estimates. That’s 36 years’ worth, based on what the USA currently consumes from all gas sources, or the equivalent of 74 years’ of current annual US oil production. The reserves span the continent, from Barnett shale in Texas to Marcellus shale in Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states – to large deposits in western Canada, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana and other states (and around the world).

Instead of importing gas, the United States could become an exporter. The gas can move seamlessly into existing pipeline systems, to fuel homes, factories and electrical generators, serve as a petrochemical feedstock, and replace oil in many applications. States, private citizens and the federal government could reap billions in lease bonuses, rents, royalties and taxes. Millions of high-paying jobs could be “created or saved.” Plentiful gas can also provide essential backup power for wind turbines.

Production of this much gas would reduce oil price shocks and dependence on oil imports from the likes of Gadhafi and Chavez, while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Talk about a game changer!

‘Green’ Panic–and New Propaganda

What’s not to like? Plenty, it turns out. The bountiful new supplies make environmentalist dogmas passé: the end of the hydrocarbon era, America as an energy pauper, immutable Club of Rome doctrines of sustainability and imminent resource depletion, the Pickens’ Plan and forests of wind turbines.

What to do? Environmentalists voiced alarm. HBO aired “Gasland,” a slick propaganda film about alleged impacts of fracking on groundwater. Its claims have been roundly debunked (for instance, methane igniting at a water faucet came from a gas deposit encountered by the homeowner’s water well – not from a fracking operation). A politically motivated Oscar was predicted, but didn’t happen.

The Environmental Protection Agency revealed a multiple personality disorder. Its Drinking Water Protection Division director told Congress there is not a single documented instance of polluted groundwater due to fracking. (Studies by Colorado and Texas regulators drew the same conclusion.)

EPA’s Texas office nevertheless insisted that Range Resources was “endangering” a public aquifer and ordered the company to stop drilling immediately and provide clean water to area homes. EPA officials then failed to show up at the hearing or submit a single page of testimony, to support their claims.

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced plans to conduct a “life-cycle” or “cradle-to-grave” study of hydraulic fracturing drilling and gas production techniques, to assess possible impacts on groundwater and other ecological values. Depending on whether the study is scientific or politicized, it could lead to national, state-by-state or even city-by-city drilling delays, bans – or booms.

The industry and many states that have long experience with drilling and are confident the needed regulations, practices and testing procedures are already in place. They voice few worries, except over how long a life-cycle study could take or how political it might become. In fact, it’s a very useful tool.

But if a life-cycle study is warranted for hydraulic fracturing, because drilling might pass through subsurface formations containing fresh water, similar studies are certainly called for elsewhere: wind turbine manufacturing, installation and operation, for instance.

Turbines require enormous quantities of concrete, steel, copper, fiberglass and rare earth minerals – all of which involve substantial resource extraction, refining, smelting, manufacturing and shipping. Land and habitat impacts, rock removal and pulverizing, solid waste disposal, burning fossil fuels, air and water pollution, and carbon dioxide emissions occur on large scales during every step of the process.

China Connection

Over 95% of global rare earth production occurs in China and Mongolia, using their technology, coal-fired electricity generation facilities and environmental rules. Extracting neodymium, praseodymium and other rare earths for wind turbine magnets and rotors involves pumping acid down boreholes, to dissolve and retrieve the minerals. Other acids, chemicals and high heat further process the materials. Millions of tons of toxic waste are generated annually and sent to enormous ponds, rimmed by earthen dams.

Leaks, seepage and noxious air emissions have killed trees, grasses, crops and cattle, polluted lakes and streams, and given thousands of people respiratory and intestinal problems, osteoporosis and cancer.

In 2009, China produced 150,000 tons of rare earth metals – and over 15,000,000 tons of waste. To double current global installed wind capacity, and produce rare earths for photovoltaic solar panels and hybrid and electric cars, China will have to increase those totals significantly – unless Molycorp and other companies can rejuvenate rare earth production in the US and elsewhere, using more modern methods.

Made in China turbines are shipped to the USA, trucked to their final destinations, and installed on huge concrete platforms; new backup gas generating plants are built; and hundreds of miles of new transmission lines are constructed. That means still more steel, copper, concrete, fuel and land. Moreover, the backup power plants generate more pollution and carbon dioxide than if they could simply run at full capacity, because as backups for turbines they must operate constantly but ramp up to full power, and back down, numerous times daily, in response to shifting wind speeds.

Industrial Wind: Anything but Green

Wind farms require roads and 700-1,000 ton concrete-and-rebar foundations, which affect water drainage patterns in farm country. The 300-500 foot tall turbines affect scenery, interfere with or prevent crop dusting over hundreds of acres, and kill countless birds and bats. Farmers who lease their land for wind turbines receive substantial royalty payments; neighbors are impacted, but receive no compensation.

Despite these ecological costs, wind farm projects are often fast-tracked through NEPA and other environmental review processes, and are exempted from endangered species and migratory bird laws that can result in multi-million-dollar fines for oil, gas and coal operators, for a fraction of the carnage.

Perhaps worst, all this is supported generously by renewable energy mandates, tax breaks, feed-in tariffs, “prioritized loading orders,” and other subsidies, courtesy of state and federal governments and taxpayers. In fact, wind power gets 90 times more in federal subsidies than do coal and natural gas, per megawatt-hour of electricity actually generated, according to US Energy Information Administration data. And wind-based electricity costs consumers several times more per kilowatt-hour than far more reliable electricity from coal, gas and nuclear power plants.

Simply put, the wind is a free energy input when it blows. But to turn such a dilute, intermittent energy source into usable electricity, massive capital investment is required. So-called renewable, green, eco-friendly wind energy system is anything but cheap.


The persistent problems with ‘green energy’ were summarized by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in their new essay, The Long Death of Environmentalism:

We need to acknowledge that the so-called “soft energy path” is a dead end.  fossil fuels…. [R]enewable energy, which [Amory] Lovins and others were claiming even as early as the late 1970’s was cheaper than fossil energy, remains expensive and difficult to scale. Renewables still cost vastly more than fossil based energy, even before we calculate the costs associated with storing and transmitting intermittent forms of energy. Wind energy, according to the latest EIA estimates, still costs 50% more than coal or gas. Solar costs three to five times as much.

It might be far better all around to simply build the most efficient, lowest-polluting coal, gas, and nuclear generating plants possible, let them run at full capacity 24/7/365 – and just skip the wind power.

Life-cycle studies would be a positive development – for all energy sources. In fact …  “Think globally, act locally” might be a very good motto for EPA and wind energy advocates.


Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and Congress of Racial Equality, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power – Black death.


  1. Jon Boone  

    Wind is not “free energy input when it blows,” as the evidence in the rest of this otherwise perceptive article reveals. The technology has capital and environmental costs that are substantial: its capital costs rival those of nuclear on a per kWh production basis, despite the fact that wind provides no firm capacity, while its environmental and cultural costs are vast, given its threat to birds, bats, habitat fragmentation, civic accord, property values, heritage views, and value added local revenues.

    Beyond this, the costs of wind even when it blows most are enormous, in dollars to support both the entangled, inefficiently operating conventional generation that must accompany wind at all times to provide firm capacity and virtually dedicated new transmission systems to bring wind to market, and in the substantial carbon emissions generated by that enabling conventional generation–emissions that would not occur absent any wind volatility on the system.

    Finally, there’s the cost to intellectual integrity when energy policy is built around such a dumb idea.


  2. Todd Wynn  

    Wind power has many other negative externalities that are commonly overlooked, such as land and material use, construction emissions and habitat destruction. A typical wind farm requires as much as 10 to 80 acres per MW of electricity

    To put this in perspective, a 900 MW natural gas powered plant may occupy 100 acres. Using a natural gas powered plant instead of a wind farm of the same capacity would, in a sense, “free up” enough land area that, if forested, potentially
    could offset 3,381,945 tons of CO2. This would be the equivalent to taking 673,694 cars off the road for a year.

    Land usage is not the only concern with wind power. The construction of wind farms is in itself an environmental issue. The material requirements for wind turbines are up to 40-50 times greater than for gas powered plants per unit of output and can have only half the useful life. There are two major components of wind turbine construction, concrete and steel, both of which are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Turbines require a significant amount of concrete to be placed at their base. The production of cement, which is the main component of concrete, is one of the most energy intensive of all industrial manufacturing processes and accounts for 5-10% of the world?s carbon dioxide emissions.

    The production of steel for the turbines is also highly energy intensive, and each ton of steel produced adds approximately two tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

    Even environmentalists understand the externalities of wind power. In New York, Laurie Farber resigned from her position as president of the Sierra Club, America?s oldest and largest environmental organization, due to a dispute over the construction of a new wind farm.

    She stated: “I found it intensely frustrating that groups refused to even want to consider that there might be any environmental impacts [of wind power]…. They [wind power advocates] were willing to be blind about this, because of a „renewable energy at any cost? attitude.”



  3. Charles  

    Love the final comment in your post Jon, that one is a keeper.


  4. David Leigh  

    ‘Instead of importing gas, the United States could become an exporter’ Whatever you do – don’t sell off your natural resources. This is what successive stupid UK governments did, and squandered the fabulous oil reserves in the North Sea – result – in the UK we are looking at gas at $13 per gallon (based on UK gallons, which are smaller than US gallons)


  5. Richard Haydn  

    Great article Paul, nice to see everything layed out in such a succint way.


  6. Jon Boone  

    Nicely said. However, if the American National Gas Association has its way, it will be natural gas that enables wind. Here’s a quote from a recent ANGA national ad campaign: “The success of wind and solar depends on natural gas.” Even as I write this, the natural gas industry is gearing up in a gush for wind with another report that shows how a wind and natural gas tandem will enable wind to offset carbon emissions, which it can’t do if paired with coal. What that report does not show is that virtually all these savings can be achieved through natural gas working alone, without any wind at all.

    Natural gas and wind is truly an impoverished power idea, twined because the gas industry believes wind will both increase its marketshare and provide lucrative income generation through tax sheltering–sticking rate and taxpayers with the tab for wind’s completely irrelevant capital and infrastructure costs.


  7. tmtisfree  

    There was a very informative article in Jan. 2011 about the environmental disaster relative to the wind folly in China titled “In China, the true cost of Britain’s clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale”: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1350811/In-China-true-cost-Britains-clean-green-wind-power-experiment-Pollution-disastrous-scale.html


  8. Jon Boone  

    Nice article re wind and Chinese rare earths. But the rest of the article floats off in fantasyland a la Brittish/Scottish wind, with projections that are ridiculous. Don’t any of these reporters, even the ones trying to get the story out, understand how electricity is produced to provide reliability and security?


  9. kramer  

    Since we have so much natural gas, if oil prices were to ever go too high, we could engineer on a national level, a switch from gas powered cars to natural gas powered cars because gas engines can be modified with no too much work to run on natural gas.


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