By Renee Cho
Over the last 10 years, the U.S. has become the largest oil and gas producer in the world, largely due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. From 2005 to 2018, U.S. natural gas production rose by 70 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions rose accordingly; between 2016 and 2018 alone, greenhouse gas emissions from US petroleum and natural gas production increased 13 percent.
But this increase in greenhouse gas emissions is headed in the wrong direction, since this year countries around the world will revisit the Paris Climate Accord to ramp up their pledges to reduce carbon emissions. 2020 might also install a Democrat in the White House — perhaps one who has pledged to ban fracking. Could this year determine fracking’s fate?
Fracking has always been controversial. Those supporting it cite the benefits of lower energy prices, job creation and energy security; those against it raise issues about negative environmental and health effects, and methane leaks, which contribute to global warming. An online poll found 48 percent of Americans in favor of fracking and 52 percent against.
The benefits of fracking
The “fracking revolution” has enabled the US to become the world’s supplier of most of the new oil produced since 2008 and end OPEC’s control over oil prices. As a result, fracking has increased energy security and lowered energy prices in the US. The fracking boom also strengthened the economy. A 2015 study found that a fracking-driven expansion in US oil and gas production added 725,000 jobs between 2005 and 2012; it also spurred manufacturing of equipment and demand for raw materials such as steel.
Some contend that natural gas is key to fighting climate change because it produces about half the greenhouse gas emissions that coal does per unit of energy. Natural gas has now replaced coal as the main source for generating electricity. The International Energy Agency estimated that since 2010, the substitution of gas for coal has saved 550 million tons of CO2 emissions globally. This switch has also resulted in less air pollution.
Natural gas has helped renewable energy use double since 2008. Romany Webb, who studies climate and energy at the Earth Institute’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said, “The key benefit of the surge in natural gas-fired generation is it is a lot more flexible, so it’s a lot easier to use with intermittent renewables that come in and out—it’s a backup resource to ramp up and down to meet demand when the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining.”
Under the Trump administration, permits to drill on public land have increased 300 percent. In 2019, Department of Interior revenues from leasing public lands to oil and gas companies and collecting royalties reached $12 billion, double the amount in 2016. These revenues get disbursed back to the federal treasury, the states and American Indian tribes and mineral owners to fund schools, public services and other projects.
The downsides of fracking
There is increasing evidence that fracking can potentially harm health. A 2019 report by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility reviewed numerous studies on fracking’s impacts: 69 percent of water quality studies found the potential for water contamination, 87 percent of air quality studies found significant air pollution, and 84 percent of studies on human health risks found signs of harm or potential harm.
The water used for fracking is mixed with a variety of chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic or toxic; companies usually refuse to identify the chemicals, claiming they are trade secrets. If well casings crack, these chemicals can seep out and potentially contaminate aquifers and drinking water supplies, exposing local residents to toxins. A 2016 study by Beizhan Yan and Steven Chillrud, geochemists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, found chemical changes in drinking water near fracking sites. The substances they detected were not at hazardous levels, but the discovery suggested that fracking could potentially cause groundwater contamination.
Once natural gas flows to the surface, the water that was used to frack—containing chemicals, salt and radioactive materials that occur naturally in shale—returns to the surface too. This wastewater, also called brine, often contains high levels of radium, which is exposing oil and gas workers and truck drivers who handle the brine and waste materials, and potentially the public, to carcinogens. An investigation (soon to be published as a book) by science journalist Justin Nobel into oil and gas radioactivity found numerous cases of cancer linked to radioactivity in fracking wastewater.
A 2017 University of Chicago study determined that babies born within a half-mile of fracking sites were 25 percent more likely to be born at a low birth weight, making them more vulnerable to infant mortality, ADHD, asthma and learning problems. Researchers do not know if the cause is air or water pollution, chemical exposure or pollution from increased traffic. A 2019 study of the effects of the shale gas boom in the Appalachians in the early 2000s found that air pollution resulted in 1,200 to 4,600 premature deaths. And in December 2019, a spike of rare Ewing sarcoma cases in teens and young adults in two heavily fracked counties in southwest Pennsylvania has prompted an investigation by the CDC and the state.
Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that, over 20 years, traps more than 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide. A 2019 MIT study found that between 1.5 and 4.9 percent of the natural gas that is produced and distributed leaks before it is used. Methane leaks can occur anywhere from the well to the storage facility and throughout the distribution system to the end user. In addition, methane “leaks” when it is intentionally vented or flared. According to the World Bank, flaring in the US increased 48 percent from 2017 to 2018.
“In the Permian Basin in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, the quantities of flared natural gas, which is just pure environmental and economic wastage, are going through the roof,” said Jonathan Elkind, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “For Texas and North Dakota alone, it was 1.1 billion cubic feet of gas per day, and has roughly doubled in the past three years, according to the US Energy Information Agency.”
A 2018 study found that US oil and gas operations emit 60 percent more methane than was estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Another estimated that North America’s shale gas production could be the source of more than half of the increase in global fossil fuel emissions over the past decade.
The Obama administration’s Methane Waste Prevention Rule, adopted in November 2016, would have prevented methane loss from venting and flaring on public lands, and required companies to repair leaks. It had the potential to reduce emissions by 180,000 tons a year, and add to the revenues of oil and gas companies that could have sold this excess gas once it was captured. In August, the Trump administration announced plans to roll these regulations back. The Bureau of Land Management estimates the result could be an additional 1.78 million tons of methane emissions entering the atmosphere by 2028.
The MIT study found that “in order for natural gas to be a major component of the nation’s effort to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets [26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025] over the coming decade, present methods of controlling methane leakage would have to improve by anywhere from 30 to 90 percent.”
Elkind said that when the Center of Global Energy Policy talks to people from the oil and gas industry, “Some of them have a really profound sense of worry and alarm that natural gas, if it is not able to live up to very high standards in terms of its impact on the environment, will be crowded out of the marketplace. And methane leakage is a big problem.”
In November 2019, the UK banned fracking in England after a report warned that there could be “unacceptable” impacts on people living near fracking sites, and that it was impossible to predict the magnitude of earthquakes that fracking might cause.
Actually, the earthquakes are not caused by the process of fracking itself, but by the pumping of fracking’s wastewater deep into injection wells for disposal where it can trigger earthquakes. From 1973 to 2008 in the central and eastern US, the yearly number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or more averaged 25; today that number is 362. The largest recorded earthquake was a damaging 5.8 magnitude quake in Oklahoma suspected to have been triggered by the disposal of fracking water.
Between 2011 and 2016, the amount of wastewater produced by oil and gas wells during their first year of production increased by up to 1,440 percent, according to a 2018 Duke University study. The researchers also found that the amount of water used for fracking has risen 770 percent in all major gas and oil production regions of the US. This is likely occurring because drillers must dig longer horizontally to reach more difficult to access gas and oil. The vast use of water could become critical as climate change worsens. Two-thirds of the drilling leases on public land in six Western states are in areas with high water stress. Moreover, the Duke study suggested that if this increasing rate of water use continues, fracking’s water footprint could grow 50-fold by 2030.
Elkind says that some fracking companies are taking these issues of methane leakage, earthquakes, and water use seriously. “The companies that want to be around for the next couple of decades or longer see real danger, not only to the environment, but also to their license to operate, arising from corner-cutting,” he said. “Some of them are absolutely cognizant of this and want to change it. Those companies recognize that if you’re going to employ hydraulic fracturing and horizontal directional drilling, then you have to be able to document that you’re doing so without the kind of risks that arise from poor field practice.”
More fossil fuel development
Despite these negative aspects of fracking, President Trump has pushed for more fossil fuel drilling and fewer environmental regulations.
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 750 million acres of public land with mineral rights, which it leases and collects royalties on. Since 2016, the Department of the Interior has rolled back wildlife, groundwater and air quality protections, and is attempting to weaken the Methane Waste Prevention Rule, which seeks to curb the venting and flaring of methane at drilling sites on public lands; these rollbacks are making it easier for the administration to offer at auction millions of acres of public land for oil and gas production.
As of August 2019, 17.7 million acres of public land in the west were being leased to oil and gas industry. Almost half are not being exploited, yet cannot be used for recreation or conservation purposes. And in December 2019, the BLM ended the five-year moratorium on new fracking and drilling in California, opening up 1.2 million more acres of public land. The state and a coalition of environmental groups are suing to stop BLM’s plan.
Too much gas?
One consequence of the increase in US gas production is a gas glut, which has lowered gas prices and caused reverberations throughout the energy sector. In the vast Marcellus Shale in Appalachia, gas prices are half what they were in 2018. In December 2019, the New York Times reported that “companies are shutting down drilling rigs, filing for bankruptcy protection and slashing the value of shale fields they had acquired in recent years.” This slow-down in gas production is hurting manufacturers that once thrived by producing drilling equipment, and their workers. In Texas’ Permian Basin, there is less overtime work and fewer jobs.
Between 2014 and 2017, 29 of the largest shale companies produced 15 percent less than they told investors they would. Shale wells are productive early on, but taper off faster than anticipated. According to the Wall Street Journal, investors are pulling back and banks are tightening lines of credit to oil and gas producers. One energy analytics firm predicts that investment in drilling and fracking will fall 6 percent in 2019, and another 14 percent in 2020.
Nonetheless, the gas industry and investors have plans to build over $70 billion of new gas-fired power plants through 2025 according to two Rocky Mountain Institute reports. As the price of renewables continues to plummet, 90 percent of this proposed new gas infrastructure will be more expensive than equivalent clean energy (wind, solar and storage) by the time it comes online. By the 2030s, these new gas plants will not be economical and will face tens of billions of dollars of stranded assets.
Fracking is facing opposition from some of the leading Democratic candidates for president. All of them say they would end new fossil fuel leases on public land. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would ban fracking altogether. Pete Buttigieg would ban new fracking. Joe Biden would not ban fracking, but would make sure existing fracking operations are safe. And Amy Klobuchar, who sees natural gas as a “transition fuel,” would not immediately ban fracking but would ensure that it is better regulated.
What could a Democratic president really do about fracking?
Elkind believes that a fracking ban is not real policy nor smart politics. “In terms of policy and the ability of the federal government to ban fracking, you would have to pass new legal instruments and I don’t think it’s credible that you’d be able to get that through the US Congress. In addition, many of the federal lands themselves exist under legal authorities that provide for multiple uses. Many of those lands are by statute meant to be for recreation, wildlife preservation, and mineral development. So there are real limitations on where you could try to institute a ban even on federal lands.”
In addition, about 1.4 million people in the US are employed in the oil and natural gas sector—in extraction, production, refining, distribution and usage in the power sector, said Elkind. “In terms of the politics [of a fracking ban], if those people feel like they have a target on their back, it’s hard to see how that is a winner.”
Indeed, in a 2019 poll taken in four largely Democratic states—Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—40 percent of swing voters favored a ban and 54 percent were opposed.
Webb said that during the Obama administration, there was a move by the BLM to more strictly regulate fracking on public lands. The proposed regulations faced strong opposition from industry groups and certain states, and were challenged in court. A court decision held that the fracking regulations exceeded the BLM’s authority, so it couldn’t adopt them. The decision was appealed but the appeal was never decided. “The case law that we have now says that they [the BLM] can’t regulate fracking,” she said.
But there may be other ways that a president could discourage fracking on public lands. Changes to royalty rates on public lands could make it more costly for oil and gas companies to produce, for example, and modifications could be made to the Clean Water or Clean Air Act to more strictly regulate the negative effects of fracking, said Webb.
Concerned about actions a Democratic president might take against fracking, the American Petroleum Institute is planning to spend $1 million on an ad campaign that touts natural gas as part of a solution to climate change. It also released a report contending that a fracking ban would mean a loss of 7.3 million US jobs by 2022, a $900 billion increase in household energy bills through 2030, and a $7.1 trillion loss to the US economy by 2030.
Weighing the pros and cons
These dire predictions about fracking restrictions, however, need to be weighed against the climate crisis. According to a recent report by a coalition of environmental groups, over the next five years the US will likely produce more oil and natural gas than any other country.
North America will be responsible for 85 percent of new global oil and gas development with over 90 percent of US expansion dependent on fracking. The Environmental Integrity Project found that the continued increase in oil, gas and petrochemical production could result in an additional 227 million tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2025 — 30 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than were generated in 2018.
Meanwhile, according to CarbonTracker, large oil and gas companies need to cut their production by more than a third by 2040 to meet the Paris climate goals. As it stands, carbon emissions from existing operating oil and gas operations around the world are on track to push us over 1.5˚C of warming, beyond which climate impacts could be catastrophic.
“I think it’s important to recognize the benefits that increased natural gas production has had in terms of that switch away from coal-fired generation,” said Webb. “But at the same time, we know that in order to achieve longer-term climate goals to transition to a net-zero economy, we are going to need to largely phase out natural gas use. There may still be some demand for gas in certain industrial applications and some forms of transport, but if we are to achieve our climate goals, the need for fossil natural gas has to decline.”