John J. Interval challenges Democrat Presidential candidates on their reckless “ban fracking” positions using some key facts and a lot of common sense.
Three of the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination want to ban fracking in the United States. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., have come out against fracking for oil and natural gas, vowing to end the practice once in the White House. Their key environmental goals entail using more renewables and less oil and gas as a solution to global warming.
The first thing to know is that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide have fallen to early-1990’s levels in large part because of the shale revolution, which has made natural gas so cheap that it is displacing coal as a fuel for generating electricity. That revolution never would have happened without a combination of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling to extract gas from underground shale formations.
For utilities that burn natural gas, this has meant higher profits and lower costs for consumers. The gas industry directly and indirectly employs more than 80,000 people in Pennsylvania. And in less than 10 years, employees for oil and gas producers have helped rewrite computer software to instruct shale workers on the best designs for hydraulic fracturing, optimizing the amounts of water, sand and chemicals pumped into the wells. This has produced a transformation in the job force, with demand growing for more data analysts, math scientists, petroleum engineers and geologists, and robotic design engineers.
Thanks to the shale revolution, Pennsylvania has become the second most vital natural gas state. Pennsylvania now produces 20 percent of all U.S. gas, only behind Texas. And Pennsylvania has become a shale-based hub for petrochemicals and plastics. What’s more, gas is now 35 percent of Pennsylvania’s power generation, up from 23 percent in 2012. And why not?
Price has tilted the playing field to make gas the preferred source of fuel for generating electricity, and because gas produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned, this transition is expected to continue well into the future.
A number of energy experts have cast doubt on how realistic or beneficial some of the Democratic presidential candidates’ energy plans are, and they include some former Obama administration officials. David Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior in the Obama Administration, said that keeping oil and natural gas in the ground “is not a good way to go.” He said it’s “impractical” to stop oil and gas drilling on public lands, since it’s an important contributor to the nation’s economy. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said that banning fracking would be bad for energy security in the U.S. and other countries, because U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas provide an alternative to Russian natural gas.
But the idea of banning fracking is also an opportunity for a reality check in the debate over how to slow the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For all the optimism about renewables, there is no reason to believe wind and solar can displace fossil fuels without causing serious economic damage. Wind and solar are part-time energy sources. Wind energy is available about half of the time. And solar half the time. Neither is available when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. And the technology for large-scale energy storage has yet to be developed. It’s why wind and solar together account for only 7 percent of U.S. electricity production and even less globally.
Despite what the candidates are saying, the reality is that a combination of natural gas, wind and solar will be vital in the years ahead. All three will be important, in many ways working together.
John J. Interval is a professional petroleum geologist. He lives in Bridgeville, Pa.