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Energy and Our World

Fracking Finally Gets The Attention It Deserves

Just one week before the 2020 Presidential election, two topics are dominating the conversation - the coronavirus and hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.” The reason for the coronavirus is obvious, but many are surprised that fracking issues are so important. 

Over the weekend, Democratic candidate Joe Biden was grilled during stops in Pennsylvania about his positions on fracking and on the oil and gas industry in general. The Biden/Harris campaign appears to have been caught off guard by the backlash against its energy positions, surprised by how the issue is playing out in the general election. Faced with numerous prior statements about ending fracking and fossil fuel development, Mr. Biden has backtracked, saying directly that he will not end fracking. 

All of the polls show that Mr. Biden holds a lead in Pennsylvania, the largest northern battleground state, but nobody is conceding the state to Biden. Fracking is a big reason why. For the first time since the fracking revolution began in Pennsylvania in 2007, it is fracking opponents who have been put on the defensive.

Frankly, it’s about time. Main stream press reporting on this issue frequently has been one-sided, with the benefits (and problems) of fracking far more nuanced and deserving of closer scrutiny than generally reported. This fact – that the benefits of fracking and true tradeoffs regarding the process so rarely get discussed – highlights a danger for American society at large. Unless the facts are presented fairly, honestly, fully, and above all else objectively, we risk making poor policy choices simply because we are not being properly informed. If this 2020 election cycle does nothing else, showing that there is more than one side to the fracking debate can be hugely important moving forward.

Some specific examples are instructive. In 2018, researchers from three major American universities, Yale, Penn State, and the University of Cincinnati, performed independent studies on water pollution and fracking. (Source)

All of the studies reached the same overall conclusion - that there is little to no evidence the fracking process contributes to contamination of local groundwater. This conclusion however contradicts one of the most commonly held claims about fracking among its critics, and has been repeatedly stated in the press. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, given how entrenched the belief that fracking is a major source of groundwater pollution has become, the studies received little to no press attention. Even two of the universities themselves seemed reluctant to present their conclusions.  Still, the studies confirmed the basic conclusion about fracking reached by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which had been issued during the Obama Administration back in 2016. With some caveats, the EPA determined that little evidence exists connecting fracking to groundwater pollution at all

Despite this, the vast majority of press reports on fracking have been negative, and continue to be so. Fracking has been linked to all sorts of maladies and environmental concerns. Not coincidentally, both fracking, and the pipelines used to transport the gas and oil produced by fracking, are being subjected to increasing state pressure and even outright bans. (Source 1) (Source 2)

Given the constant negative media attention, it is not surprising that the Democratic Party as a whole moved far to the left on fracking issues. As the 2020 campaign concludes, Democratic candidates in swing states now find that the issue is much more complex than the negative hype about fracking has always claimed.

Not only is destroying the energy industry, as Mr. Biden at one point seemed to suggest during the final Presidential debate, not good policy economically, there are other huge problems such a policy would cause. Fossil fuels provide the building blocks for over 90% of the world’s pharmaceuticals. Fossil fuels also are used to manufacture the PPE’s that our doctors and medical workers need to fight Covid-19. Regarding our environment, thanks to fracking, the switch from coal to natural gas-based power sources in the United States has produced the greatest decrease in CO2 emissions that the world has seen to date.  

Fracking admittedly is not a “green” process. It has numerous negative environmental impacts and consequences. But then, so do power sources often called “renewables.”  No form of energy production is truly “green” in the sense that it will have no adverse effects on the environment. 

There will be many tradeoffs and many undesirable consequences that result from the switch from fossil fuel to “green” energy production. That doesn’t mean we should stop looking for more environmentally-friendly ways to power our lives. It means we need to understand the tradeoffs of moving in that direction. This is the context that the debate about fracking needs to happen, yet rarely does – at least perhaps until now.

Finally, however, the crucible of the 2020 election has brought fracking in all of its complexities front and center. It has highlighted that banning the process, and also banning the pipelines that are the most reliable way to transport the natural gas which comes from fracking, not only may hurt our economy, it also may harm our environment and the ability to produce the pharmaceuticals and other products which enrich our lives, at least at this time. This is a discussion long overdue. Whichever way the election turns out, the country will be better for having it.

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