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The Problems With Fracking

And the benefits.

12:00 AM, May 24, 2014 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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The fracking euphoria had to end. For three reasons. First, the claims for its benefits were wildly exaggerated, ensuring eventual disappointment as even a cheerful reality could not meet the imaginings of the pro-fossil-fuel gang. Second, environmental groups were not going to sit idly by, their formidable political weapons holstered, while fossil fuels received a new lease on life in America. Third, as has always been the case, the oil and gas industry, abetted by the railroads that have to move the stuff in the absence of adequate pipeline infrastructure, were insufficiently attentive to some of the problems involved in the production and transportation of the enormous gas and oil reserves made available by the new application of what is an old technology.


Not that fracking has not brought huge benefits to American industry. The processes of drilling for and extracting the newly accessible reserves has created hundreds of thousands of jobs, both directly and indirectly—the latter in the industries that feed, house and service the oil field workers. The abundant supply of natural gas has kept prices so low that the harsh winter’s blow to the pocketbooks of customers of many U.S. utilities has been softened. Perhaps more important, relatively low-cost natural gas is attracting manufacturing industries to America from Germany, Chile and other countries, and positioning us to become a major player in the emerging globalised market for natural gas. And someday might even put the U.S. in a position to become such an important source of natural gas that countries now dependent on Putin’s Russia might find themselves with a bit more foreign policy independence and spine than they currently display.

The fact that U.S. production of oil has increased 44 percent since 2013 might not promise the “energy independence” that presidents since Richard Nixon professed to be able to deliver, but it does make America less dependent on supplies from unstable and unfriendly countries such as Libya and Nigeria, and less subject to sharp price spikes that in July 2008 took the price of a barrel of crude to $147. In fact, the danger now facing the domestic oil industry is that oil prices might drop sharply. The re-emergence of Iraq as a major producer, increased production from Mexico and other countries now more welcoming to foreign investment, and the revival of Iranian exports as sanctions are eased, likely even in the absence of a nuclear deal with the mullahs, could drop prices of this internationally traded commodity below the $100 per barrel that frackers claim they need to continue exploring and producing. Besides, oil shale production is expected to decline early in the next decade, increasing U.S. reliance on imports. Talk of Saudi America is premature.

Add to the precarious price position of America’s frackers the accelerated onslaught of the greens. Environmental politics has always trumped environmental economics, and fracking is no exception. Those leading hydrologists – Lady Gaga, Yoko Ono, and Sir Paul McCartney – have persuaded New York governor Andrew Cuomo to prevent fracking in economically depressed upstate New York State lest the water supply be contaminated. Greens opposed to the production and use of any fossil fuels have been emboldened by the recent National Climate Assessment’s conclusion that malign climate change is already upon us to renew their efforts to weave a regulatory web around fracking. If what the President calls “the settled science of climate change” is indeed settled, and the consequences of climate change are already visible in both droughts and floods, in both heat waves and cold winters, surely it is not in the interest of the U.S., indeed the world, to allow fracking to add to reserves of the fossil fuels that are causing these problems. Especially since the production process itself compounds the ill effects of the consumption of fracked oil and gas. So say many environmentalists.

Just as the virtues of fracking, real though they are, are overstated by the oil and gas industry, so are its vices when recited by the green lobby. Yes, there seems to be evidence that oil obtained by fracking is more volatile than oil produced the good old-fashioned way; that rail transport is more dangerous than pipeline shipment; that methane does seep from the equipment used in fracking and might be a more troublesome greenhouse gas than CO2; that large amounts of contaminated waste-water are created; and that the flaring of excess natural gas does not exactly improve the environment. But there is also evidence that the industry is addressing these problems by:

·     re-using waste water, or treating it to make it usable for other purposes,

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