In its closing days the presidential campaign has re-energized the ongoing debate over “fracking.”
President Trump and his allies claim that if elected president, Joe Biden would ban fracking, a production-enhancement technology used to coax hard-to-reach oil and gas out of tight rock formations. Biden for his part denies that his plans to transition to a less-carbon intensive economy would include banning the practice.
The word fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, has become an emotionally charged term for many, but one that nevertheless might be unfamiliar to people outside of oil- and gas-producing states.
Fracking involves forcing large volumes of water, chemicals and sand or other proppant material into a well at high pressure to force open fractures in the rock allowing the oil or gas to flow to the surface. Used in combination with horizontal drilling, fracking is credited with launching the “shale revolution,” which has led over the past decade or so to a surge in U.S. oil and gas production, to where the nation is the world’s leading hydrocarbon producer, according to the U.S Energy Information Administration.
The GOP hopes that painting Biden as an anti-fracking radical environmentalist would hurt his election prospects in crucial oil and gas-producing states, such as Pennsylvania. However the charge is false; Biden’s website, which outlines his plan for “a Clean Energy Revolution and Environment Justice,” doesn’t even list the words “fracking” or “hydraulic fracturing.”
But the climate plan, which calls for the U.S. to achieves a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050, does call for a ban on new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters. This action would put these lands out of reach for future hydrocarbon development and lead to a loss of revenues to the treasury through lease bonus and royalty payments.
It’s not even clear that the issue will be the big winner in the Keystone State that the Republicans seem to think it is. A CBS News Battleground Tracker poll in August asked 1,225 registered voters in Pennsylvania which candidate would do a better job handling issues surrounding oil and gas exploration, including fracking, in Pennsylvania. The results were pretty close, with 45% favoring Trump and 42% Biden, with 3% saying both would equally do a good job and 10% saying neither would.
Fracking is key to U.S. ‘shale revolution’
Aside from the politics, however, the issue of fracking is now front and center in the public’s mind and is serving as a stand-in in the larger debate over whether, and how to manage a transition from an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels to a less carbon-intensive one in the future.
The well-completion technique known as fracking has been around a long time but didn’t begin to come into prominence until the late 1990s, after energy and real estate entrepreneur George Mitchell and his company Mitchell Energy started combining fracking with horizontal drilling to coax natural gas out of the rock-hard Barnett Shale play of North Texas.
Over the next two decades, producers learned to refine the technique to produce both crude oil and gas from shale plays stretching from the Marcellus of the Appalachian region to the Bakken Shale of North Dakota. According to the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy up to 95 percent of new wells drilled today are hydraulically fractured.
Fracking-driven production from the shales and other producing basins, notably the Permian Basin of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, has led U.S. oil and gas output to skyrocket over the last decade. According to EIA data U.S. field production of crude oil more than doubled from 5.48 million barrels per day (boe/d) in 2010 to 12.25 million boe/d in 2019, while gas production rose from 21.32 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2010 to 33.98 Tcf over the same period.
Yet, despite its role in supercharging fossil fuel production – and for some environmentalists, for that very reason – fracking has remained controversial. Critics have alleged it creates problems with groundwater contamination, emissions of methane and other harmful air pollutants, and even human-induced earthquakes.
Pro-industry groups have been quick to try to allay some of these concerns. On its website, Energy in Depth, a group funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, cites more than 25 scientific, peer-reviewed studies and expert assessments that found that fracking is not a major threat to groundwater.
The group also cites a landmark 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study which found, “Hydraulic fracturing operations are unlikely to generate sufficient pressure to drive fluids into shallow drinking water zones.” However, that study also finds “scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances.”
As to methane emissions, ED acknowledges that fracking, like virtually all oil and gas operations, does result in releases of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, whose global warming potential over 100 years is 28 times higher that of CO₂.
Environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), have argued that the levels of methane emissions from fracking and other operations cancel out the climate benefits that natural gas has over coal. In a statement on its website, EID counters that argument.
“The current U.S. methane leakage rate is at or below 1.5 percent, according to the latest EPA data far less than the 3.2 percent threshold for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits.” However, recent environmental studies have challenged the EPA methane estimates as being too low. For example, EDF studies have found that U.S. methane levels were likely 60% higher than EPA estimates.
On the issue of induced seismicity, EID acknowledges there have been some rare recorded instances of earthquakes being caused by fracking. However, the larger issue concerning induced earthquakes revolves around those caused by the injection of oilfield wastewater into seismically-sensitive geological strata.
Attitudes toward fracking changing
In Pennsylvania, voters’ attitudes toward fracking and its regulation will likely be influenced by a 243-page statewide investigating grand jury report, which found that “private companies engaged in unconventional oil and gas activities have committed criminal violations of Pennsylvania’s environmental laws.”
The damning report, released in June, also slammed the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Health for the failure of the two agencies to uphold the state’s environmental laws in regard to fracking operations.
For those environment groups that see global warming as an existential threat, fracking represents a particular danger beyond the immediate environmental challenges it may entail. Thanks to fracking, the oil and gas extraction industry has been able to produce vast supplies of fossil fuels at relatively low prices, which in turn has extended the length of time that the nation and the world are likely to depend on fossil fuels, at the expense of the development of cleaner forms of energy.
Regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, as a result of the ongoing debate over how to cope with climate change, we’re likely to be dealing with the fracking issue far beyond the current election cycle.