For all the sound and fury surrounding climate change, there has been surprisingly little attention given to the benefits of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in reshaping the energy industry and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
As the race for a Democratic presidential candidate continues, there has been a certain disgust at the mere mention of fracking. It is a remarkable paradox. At a time when the rest of the world is looking toward America as we lead in combating global warming, some Democratic candidates refuse to accept the only energy technology that is making a real difference now in reducing emissions. Three Democratic candidates — Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California — say that, if elected, they will push for a nationwide ban on fracking. That’s foolhardy.
Fracking is safe, reliable and successful. It entails injecting shale rock formations with high-pressure water and sand with a minuscule (0.5%) amount of common chemicals to open the rock, allowing hydrocarbons to flow. Thanks to fracking, combined with horizontal drilling, U.S. natural gas production has soared 60 percent since 2008 and carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production in the United States have fallen to mid-1990s levels. As a result of the surge in natural gas use, the U.S. is leading the world in reducing carbon emissions.
Natural gas produced from fracking is important to our energy future because of its low cost and abundance and its low emission of pollutants. Fracking has enabled electrical power producers to shift from high-carbon coal and crude-based fuels to natural gas because it’s cheaper and cleaner. Additionally, natural gas is the perfect counterpart to renewable energy as gas-fired turbines supplement for solar power on days when the sun isn’t shining and for wind power on days when the wind isn’t blowing.
A ban on fracking would have significant detrimental economic and environmental consequences. It would harm U.S. oil and gas production, and increase imports and emissions while throwing people out of work. This is not what we need. We would end up with less oil and gas production at increasing costs as existing fields play out, and because of practical limits on the availability of solar and wind power, banning fracking would backfire. It would drive up carbon emissions and make it harder to achieve the deep cuts in emissions needed to halt global warming.
A fracking ban would have profound ill effects beyond the economic and environmental damage and loss of jobs. Geopolitically, without access to U.S. liquefied natural gas, Europe would become increasingly dependent on Russian natural gas to heat homes and power industries. Eastern Europe has already suffered for a long time the debilitating cost of this dependence.
Today, huge benefits from fracking are reaching consumers in the U.S. and around the world. The Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. gas production will rise about twice as fast as domestic demand. This will enable the U.S. to become the largest LNG exporter within five years. But without fracking, the U.S. loses and the dictator Vladimir Putin wins.
Instead of being discontinued or discounted, fracking must be the fulcrum by which the U.S. moves ahead on gas production and successfully combats global warming.
Jeffrey C. Nelson is a member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and a certified petroleum geologist.