From The New York Times
Can Liberals Frack?
By GARY SERNOVITZ
AS the Democratic presidential campaign comes to New York, the candidates are competing to dance on the grave of fracking, even though the oil and gas extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing has been banned in the state since 2014. The anti-fracking rhetoric seems to be rooted in the assumption that liberalism is as inherently antithetical to fracking as it is, say, to the Defense of Marriage Act — or monarchy. That assumption, however, does a disservice to liberals’ claims to be on the side of empiricism and climate science.
I can already hear the derisive howls at my being able to make that claim objectively: I am a “fracker,” an executive at an investment firm that funds oil and gas shale development, someone whose own economic interest would be
crushed by a national ban on fracking. But my job has also provided me with palpable, irreplaceable encounters with the environmental, economic and global impact of fracking and the shale revolution, in places like Midland, Tex., and Mount Morris, Pa.
Nothing I have seen as a professional has shaken my politics as a person: I remain a classic New York City liberal, whose opinions my friends in Midland see as evidence of either perverse disregard for my own self-interest or pitiable softheadedness.
But I find liberalism and fracking to be completely compatible. This opinion was once relatively common, whether in Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s (later disavowed) 2009 assertion that shale gas was President Obama’s “most obvious first step toward saving our planet” to the president’s own State of the Union address in 2012, which praised domestic oil and gas production — whose renaissance has been enabled by fracking — as part of an “all-out, all-of-the-above strategy” on energy.
The American shale revolution has advanced three causes dear to most liberals’ hearts. First, fracking has allowed America to lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide of coal to generate the same amount of electricity, and the unleashing of gas
from shale reservoirs has led in the last decade to a 40 percent rise in gas production in the United States and a 70 percent fall in prices.
This has spurred major displacement of coal in electricity generation. From 2007 to 2014, largely as a result of plummeting coal use, the United States reduced its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons — nearly four times the next highest country. By my math, if coal returned to its pre-shale revolution market share, our carbon emissions would grow by 5 percent, spewing 285 million more tons of CO2 — a Poland or Taiwan’s worth — into the atmosphere annually.
Second, fracking fights poverty and reduces inequality. In the United States, personal expenditures on energy dropped 16 percent in 2015 because of falling oil and gas prices. Lower energy prices are even more important in poorer nations, where consumers spend a higher percentage of gross domestic product on energy than richer ones. Lower fossil fuel prices are joining plummeting renewable costs in providing cheap energy to the world on all fronts, easing the growth of electricity and clean water in places that desperately need it.
Third, a spike in oil and gas prices would put hundreds of billions of dollars in the pockets of the rulers of petrostates. Life in countries like Russia, Angola and Iran reads like a list of everything liberals hate: political
corruption and oppression, authoritarian leaders and abominable records on women’s, gay and minority rights. A ban on fracking is not just about whether to drill in New York State, but also about the oil-fueled power of a Middle Eastern king to resist domestic reform and how that power can be checked by rising American oil and gas production.
Of course, fracking has local and global costs. For communities where shale development occurs, there is the risk of an accident in every part of the oil and gas extraction process and an increasing number of small earthquakes from shale-related wastewater disposal. But the magnitude of local environmental incidents is often exaggerated by fracking’s opponents, who don’t put the incidents into the context of the 85,000 horizontal shale wells drilled in the United States.
Fracking’s opponents often blithely dismiss any contrary evidence, like the conclusion of the landmark June 2015 Environmental Protection Agency study that found that while fracking activities had led to a small number of water contamination incidents, they “have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources in the United States.” There is also something undemocratic in the idea that Washington, rather than the affected communities, can better balance the drawbacks of shale drilling with its economic benefits.
Opponents of fracking highlight two other objections. First, they claim that it has been fully proved that methane leakage from natural gas extraction and distribution offsets the climate benefits of gas over coal. But there has been no such proof. We are still in the early stages of studying this issue, with the E.P.A. and the Environmental Defense Fund leading the charge, and we can straightforwardly accomplish greater methane capture with new regulations that appeal to the self-interest of an industry in the business, after all, of selling methane.
The other anti-fracking argument is an indisputable one: Fracking has extended the era of cheap fossil fuels, which puts the planet in peril. But a ban on fracking will not lead to a world suddenly powered by the wind and the sun.
More widespread and economically competitive renewables and scientific breakthroughs in energy storage will one day lead to a world powered by renewables. This is the tradeoff: Banning fracking would almost certainly contribute to runaway oil and gas prices that could force a faster shift away from fossil fuels; banning fracking would also immediately increase the use of coal.
Liberals can sincerely differ on whether a near-term increase in carbon emissions is worth the long-term scarcity of oil and gas. These aren’t easy questions. You don’t have to support fracking to be a liberal, but you are not a shill for the fossil fuel industry if you do.