By Will Weldon

Weldon cover image

Natural Gas Fracking in Louisiana, by Daniel Foster, 23 Oct. 2013

Arguably the most debated topic in modern society, climate change, is one strongly linked to the process of fracking. While fracking, in the minds of many Americans, is the champion of the United States energy industry, there are those who call for the elimination of the practice. Such opponents from the environmental health arena point to the risks the process poses to the environment and individual health, as well as to the widespread notion that the world must soon transition to renewable resources. Though many call for the immediate move away from fossil fuels in America, the relatively innocuous nature of natural gas makes it a prospective “transition fuel” to be used en route to clean energy. The question of whether or not fracking should continue in the United States deals with two systems which hold great power over the American citizen: the economy and the climate. While the sustained use of fossil fuels may have detrimental effects on Earth’s climate, the abolition of fracking in the United States will almost certainly leave the American economy devastated and render us dependent on foreign countries for energy. Such consequences have led to the development of two chief sides to the fracking debate. Either we should end fracking immediately in an attempt to prevent any further climate change, or we should gradually reduce the practice of fracking over time. In our current world, you will find the latter is far more economically, environmentally, and politically practical.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of natural-gas-and-crude-oil extraction that involves the pumping of high-pressure fluid into underground rock formations. The fluid, which is typically a mixture of sand, water, and chemical additives, is used to fracture the rock layers and release natural gas and oil (“Fracking in the United States”). These resources then flow into a wellbore and are extracted to the surface. An additional technique used in the modern fracking industry is the process of horizontal drilling. This technology involves the well turning ninety degrees and extending horizontally along the desired rock layer, allowing fracking companies to maximize their output for each well. Horizontal drilling, as well as other developments achieved for fracking, including those in machinery and fluid, is partly responsible for the fracking industry’s boom in the United States (Denchak).

Since the turn of the century, the fracking industry has grown at an exponential rate across the United States. Technological developments have allowed fracking to successfully be applied to dense rock formations which were previously unusable, such as shale. Equally influential in the industry’s boom was the United States’s vulnerability to fluctuations in the global fossil fuels price, leading to an influx of investors (Denchak). The number of natural gas wells in the U.S. doubled from 2000 to 2010 and has continued growing over the last decade (“Fracking in the United States”). This is evident in the U.S. jumping from third in global oil production ten years ago to first, all while increasing natural gas production by another two-thirds (Elliot and Santiago).

Despite the fracking boom in the United States and the continued use of fossil fuels throughout the world, it is understood that such resources are finite. Estimates on when non-renewable resources will eventually run out are complex and lead to widespread disagreement. Though there is no universally accepted timeline for how long fossil fuels can be sustained, it is generally agreed that natural gas and coal reserves will hold out longer than oil. This consensus gives little assurance, however, as the timeline for natural gas ranges from 50 years to upwards of 350 years (Lorenz). Thus, the question is not whether the United States should transition towards renewable resources; it is simply how soon and how aggressively this transition should take place.

The fracking industry is deeply intertwined with the United States economy. At the height of the fracking boom in 2015, the natural gas and oil industry was credited with supporting 10.3 million jobs, as well as $714 billion in labor income and $1.3 trillion in economic benefit. This accounted for 7.6 percent of the total United States GDP (“Hydraulic Fracturing”). The benefits of this economic impact extend far beyond the states historically credited with the production of oil and natural gas, however, as all fifty states were shown to experience residual benefits (Fleisher). Perhaps the most pervasive of such benefits has been the lowering of gas and energy prices nationwide. A 2019 study found that motor fuel in the United States would cost 43 percent more in the absence of fracking, while electrical prices would cost 31 percent more (Fleisher). Such a decrease in gas prices has similarly affected gas-consuming households. From 2007 to 2013, the increase in fracking saw consumer gas bills drop by $13 billion annually. This total indicates an average saving of $200 per gas-consuming household per year. Moreover, other energy sectors, including commercial, industrial, and electric power consumers, witnessed economic gains totaling $74 billion per year (Fleisher).

Equally indicative of fracking’s role in the U.S. economy is its dominance over the energy sector and its creation of jobs. 2019 marked the first year since 1957 where the United States energy production exceeded consumption, with total production increasing by six percent (“U.S. Energy Facts”). Natural gas and oil are largely responsible for this feat, as they make up 34.7% and 23.6% of the U.S.’s energy industry, respectively. Due to the fact that fracking is responsible for two-thirds of natural gas and 59% of crude oil produced, the fracking industry makes up just under 40% of the total United States energy industry (“U.S. Energy Facts”). Such pervasiveness has led to the shale energy sector (fracking) supporting approximately 9.8 million jobs. This makes up 5.6% of the total U.S. employment pool (Wissman). Moreover, the development of U.S. natural gas reserves is expected to create upwards of one million jobs in the manufacturing industry by 2025. The global hydraulic fracturing market is expected to see even greater rates of growth, as statistics on the growth of fracking suggest that the natural gas market will reach $68 billion dollars by 2024 (“Hydraulic Fracturing Market”). Such a projected leap from the $37.23 billion market value in 2018 is reminiscent of the fracking boom in the early 2010s, giving even more value to the already instrumental fracking industry.

The advent of fracking has also had major economic impacts on a local scale. Fracking has been primarily an industry of the Great Plains region into southern Texas and an area known as the Marcellus Shale, which stretches along the Appalachians from central New York south into Ohio and Virginia. These regions—especially the Marcellus Shale, which has been dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas”—have seen local communities lifted by the economic benefits of natural gas wells. A study by researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that the shale boom produced benefits to nearby communities valued at $1,900-a-year for the average household (Handy). The same research found that there was an increase in income, employment, and housing prices. On average, employment climbed by 10%, income by 7%, and home prices by 6% in these communities—though in North Dakota, home prices rose an average of 20%, showing the potential economic explosion fracking can cause in communities. These results are validated by another study, which found that fracked communities saw similar increases in employment (3.7–5.5%), income (3.3-6.1%), and housing prices (5.7%). They also found that the average salary increased from anywhere between 5.4 and 11% (Fleisher). Even when the tradeoffs associated with living near natural gas wells are accounted for, nearby communities see benefits of tens of thousands of dollars.

The ingrained nature of fracking in the U.S. energy industry means its removal would devastate the nation’s economy. Naturally, a fracking ban would greatly increase the cost of natural gas and electricity. A report by the Department of Energy estimated that a ban on fracking in the U.S. would increase retail natural gas costs by more than $400 billion between 2021 and 2025, and retail electrical prices by more than $480 billion. The same report calculated the probable price increase which gasoline and diesel fuels would experience. They found there would be an annual price increase by over 100% for gasoline, bringing prices to over $4.20 per gallon in 2022 and 2023. Similarly, the annual average diesel fuel price would increase by 95%, bringing the cost to $4.56 per gallon in 2022 (“Department of Energy”). Cumulatively, the costs associated with a fracking ban could lead to a $7.1 trillion hit to the GDP by 2030. A report to the President in 2021 warned that the elimination of the industry would lead to a loss of 7.7 million jobs in 2022, which would make up 5% of the total American workforce (Economic and National Security). An additional report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that the average American family could see their cost-of-living rise by roughly $4,000 (“New Energy Institute Report”). Such consequences would ravage the United States economy, likely triggering another recession.

Not only does the hydraulic fracking industry hold the United States economy together, but it serves as a safeguard against the risks associated with the global energy market. Recent years have seen the United States achieve complete energy security, a feat that has been the goal of Administrations since the 1970’s energy crisis. This means that the U.S. is able to export more energy than it imports, freeing us from reliance on foreign countries for energy, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. The strength of U.S. oil and natural gas production has made the U.S. far less vulnerable to global oil price shocks, giving domestic consumers reliable and affordable power (Economic and National Security). As put by U.S. Representative Fred Keller, “The less reliant the United States and our allies are on energy resources produced by countries that hate us, the less influence they have over us” (“Fracking—Top 3”). Without energy independence, the U.S.’s national security is at risk. Such vulnerability can be seen by our national security assets’ reliance on hydrocarbons to fuel the majority of our military and its operations. This makes a steady supply of fuel necessary to effectively operate our nation’s military. In addition to this, there are several potential chokepoints along international shipping lanes that could be used to cut off fuel supplies to the United States in times of conflict. While a conflict of such magnitude seems farfetched in today’s world, a reliance on foreign energy supplies nonetheless poses a threat to our military security. A more common threat energy reliance poses is foreign countries’ ability to influence our economy. An example of this is the 1973 OAPEC oil embargo, which led to oil shortages and extreme prices, resulting in the 1970’s energy crisis and limited economic growth (Economic and National Security). In short, a ban on fracking would put the U.S. economy in the hands of foreign nations.

Though the end of fossil fuels is inevitable, natural gas is a necessary component in the transition to clean energy. The role of natural gas as a “transition fuel” comes as a result of its relatively clean nature in comparison to coal and petroleum. Natural gas has been shown to produce 50% to 60% fewer carbon emissions than coal while generating the same amount of energy. Similarly, it has been shown to give off 30% less CO2 than oil (Wissman). The replacement of coal and petroleum with natural gas has allowed the United States to achieve immediate reductions in greenhouse gases while renewable energy sectors such as wind and solar are built into viable industries (“Fracking—Top 3”). In the last decade, the switching from coal and petroleum to natural gas has eliminated approximately 500 million tons of CO2 emissions from our nation's carbon footprint (“The Role of Gas”).

Despite the environmental benefits of natural gas, the process of hydraulic fracking has been criticized as a danger to the environment and individual health. Opponents of fracking point to the large number of chemicals used in well fluid as a potential danger to local water supplies and overall health. Such concern is due to the fact that, assuming each mixture is approximately 1% chemical additives, over 70,000 gallons of chemicals are required per well. A study by Yale Public Health found that over 80% of such chemicals had never been reviewed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Out of those that had been reviewed, 55 were found to be carcinogenic (Pokladnik). These chemicals, which pose the risk of becoming airborne during the fracking process, could contribute to immediate and long-term health issues for nearby communities, according to a study from Colorado School of Public Health (qtd. in Lallanilla). Such additives also present the danger of leaking into local water supplies. In 2012, for example, Chesapeake Energy Corp. was cited with contaminating the drinking water of three families, resulting in a $1.6 settlement (Lallanilla). On a larger scale, the process of fracking has been known to inadvertently release methane, a greenhouse gas known to be 80% to 90% more potent than CO2. Some fracking wells may have methane leakage rates as high as 7.9%, which would outweigh the benefits of using natural gas and make the process of fracking worse than coal (“Fracking”). The uncertainty that characterizes both the chemicals used in fracking and those leaked from it make it easy to see why the process has been criticized by environmentalists.

The use of natural gas as a bridge fuel to renewable energy has also come under fire from climate change advocates. According to thousands of scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is no scenario in which the world can continue digging for fossil fuels, including natural gas obtained from fracking, without causing irreversible damage to the climate (Stein). Research published by the Stockholm Environment Institute reveals that, despite the rhetoric about moving towards renewable energy, the world is on pace to produce 120 % more fossil fuels than would limit global warming to 1.5-degrees Celsius, the goal set by the Paris Agreement in 2015 (Stein). An article by Green America confirms the futility in using natural gas as a transition fuel, stating “The money spent on natural gas power facilities and infrastructure takes decades to recuperate. Companies would need to use these facilities for their full lifetimes, delaying the switch to renewables for far too long” (“Natural Gas: The Myth”). In summary, opponents of fracking argue that a transition fuel is both a futile combatant against climate change and an ideological fantasy which cannot be realistically applied in the industrial world.

Fracking’s role in the United States’s natural security has received similar scrutiny. Many point to the futility in staking energy independence on a resource that is doomed to run out. Due to the fact that fossil fuels are expected to last the U.S. a few more hundred years, at best, 100% renewable energy is the only means by which to obtain long-term energy security. Recent shifts in the global economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also highlighted the nature of natural gas as a market-dependent resource, as total demand for fossil fuels dropped 6% in 2020. The only energy industry that experienced growth during this period was renewable, demonstrating its value as the energy of the future (“Fracking—Top 3”).

In light of both the benefits and detriments of hydraulic fracking, I believe the industry should be gradually reduced in favor of renewable resources, though it cannot be completely removed from the energy and economic plan for many years. This is largely because the renewable energy sector is not viable enough to fill the shoes of fracking if eliminated.

Firstly, the economic impact of a fracking ban would far outweigh any progress made towards combating climate change. The economic decline that would occur in the absence of fracking would have great implications for all U.S. citizens, most likely sending us into another recession, if not a depression. Such an economic hit would not only have a negative impact on the lives of almost all Americans, but it would leave the U.S. economy and investors with even less capital to invest in the development of the renewable energy industry. Therefore, the elimination of fracking in the U.S. would have little, if any, immediate impact on improving the strength of the renewable energy sector, all while ravaging the economy.

Perhaps most important in my claim against an immediate ban on fracking is the fact that such a policy would have an overall negative impact on the environment. While a fracking ban would eventually lead to growth and development in the renewable energy industry (after an economic recovery), clean energy would, for many years, be incapable of providing energy for all of America. Thus, the United States would resort to coal, petroleum, and other fossil fuels for energy. This increased usage of “dirtier” energies to compensate for the loss of natural gas would greatly increase the amount of CO2 released in our nation for years to come; optimistic predictions dismiss the possibility of renewable energy being viable any time before 2050 (Roberts). This implies that the United States will also not be able to pin our nation's national security on fossil fuels until at least 2050. The timetable for when the renewable energy sector would become viable is far too long for the U.S. military and government to remain dependent on foreign nations for energy imports. In the long run, while energy security based on renewables is the most ideal, its immediate consequences pose far too great a risk to our national security.

The conversation concerning fracking, in recent years, has become increasingly synonymous with that concerning climate change. While fracking undoubtedly impacts the environment, the question of whether to eliminate the practice is far more nuanced than the general public knows. By backing the argument that fracking cannot be removed from our nation for many years, I am not simply placing the economic prosperity of our nation above the ecological integrity of our planet. Rather, I am asserting that the economic, ecological, and political consequences of such a policy outweigh the benefits. A ban on fracking would have immediate negative implications for our economy, environment, and national security. However, this does not mean that it should never be phased out, as the move to 100 % renewable energy is necessary to avoid irreversible damage to our climate. Such a stance is rarely announced in the polarizing atmosphere of today’s world, and it is one that I feel must be considered if we are to properly address an issue which has such significant implications for our nation's future.