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The Future of Fracking

A line of people holding hands in the snow, with flags

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

People demonstrating against the Dakota Access Pipeline, December 4, 2016

“I do rule out banning fracking, because we need other industries to transition to get to ultimately a complete zero-emissions,” said Joe Biden in the presidential debate on October 22, 2020, referring to the main extraction method of the US natural gas industry, hydraulic fracturing. Climate change generally was a surprise hot topic of the debates, as Donald Trump sought to use the Democrat’s position on cutting fossil-fuel use as a wedge issue against him, but fracking was a particularly contentious point since both nominees knew that Pennsylvania—the nation’s second-largest producer of natural gas—was a crucial swing state in the election (Biden eventually carried it by just over a percentage point).

Biden seemed to want it both ways: he spoke of moving toward a fully renewable economy, but wouldn’t put the kibosh on oil and gas. “We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels,” Biden clarified to reporters after the debate. “We’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”

A common argument in favor of fracking among those who acknowledge the perils of climate change—and a popular industry talking point—is that the abundant natural gas fracking produces will serve as a “bridge fuel,” a lower-emissions alternative to coal that will tide us over while renewable technologies continue to develop and drop in price. The industry’s clean energy credentials are dubious, and the process of fracking itself raises a host of health and pollution concerns, but the shift toward natural gas is already well underway. Natural gas surpassed coal as the primary source of US electricity generation for the first time ever in 2016, and increased its share to 39 percent last year, while coal, renewables, and nuclear were each responsible for around 20 percent.

Even many natural gas advocates agree that current levels of use are not compatible with increasingly urgent long-term climate goals—the bridge, in other words, is supposed to have an off-ramp. But given the US’s disastrously slow track record of curbing oil and coal use in the face of vested economic interests and the continued expansion of natural gas infrastructure today, how long will what Biden called the “transition” take?

Transition has become a buzzword in many conversations about climate change, but it’s a slippery concept that is put to a variety of uses. The idea of a “Just Transition” originated with the labor movement in the 1990s, when union leaders argued that the economic disruption caused by moving toward more sustainable industries should be spread equally across society rather than falling on certain workers, and it informs progressive policy today. But the language of transition has spread far and wide: recently, in a virtual “US Climate Finance Summit,” the CEO of Bank of America said, “We have to have a balanced, fair transition across the globe and realize it’s going to take time and investment and innovation. And that’s what capitalism brings.” 

When financiers opposing divestment and oil and gas industry executives throw around the terms “energy transition” or “climate transition,” it can sound more like “not so fast.” After Biden’s statements on the stump, anti-fracking campaigners could be excused for wondering whether he has the political will and means to finally kick America’s fossil-fuel habit.

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Fracking has transformed the energy landscape with shocking speed, unlocking vast reserves of oil and natural gas hidden in the shale fields of Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota, and elsewhere across the US. Largely as a result, US energy production outstripped consumption in 2019 for the first time since 1957. 

The basic technology behind fracking—cracking rock to release oil or gas—stretches back to the Civil War, when a Union lieutenant colonel noticed torpedoes fracturing the sides of a small canal during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. Three years later, he patented the “Exploding Torpedo,” a gunpowder-packed device that could boost production up to tenfold when lowered into an oil well.

The process was refined in the 1940s with the advent of hydraulic fracturing, which, rather than using explosives to break apart rock formations, used pressurized fluid mixed with sand or other gritty material to hold the resulting fissures open (the first time this “hydrafrac” process was used, in 1947, the well was injected with a mixture of gasoline, sand, and napalm). Hydraulic fracturing became commercially successful over time and was in use across the US by the late 1960s, though at that time it could be applied only to conventional wells, which soon began to run dry. 

The energy shortages and high fuel prices of the 1970s were brought about by declining domestic production and foreign imports interrupted by the 1973 oil crisis, when Saudi Arabia abruptly shut off supply to the US. In a 1977 address devoted to energy, President Jimmy Carter warned that “The oil and natural gas that we rely on for 75 percent of our energy are simply running out,” and pleaded for thrift: “We must prepare quickly for a…change to strict conservation and to the renewed use of coal and to permanent renewable energy sources like solar power.” Without such a change, he said, “Our consumption of oil would keep going up every year.”  

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While Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House (soon removed by Ronald Reagan), the Department of Energy under the Carter administration also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development for extracting oil and natural gas from shale formations, the dense sedimentary rock deep underground where oil and gas are created when immense pressure and heat are applied to decomposed organic matter like ancient algae and plankton. Conventional wisdom held that this oil and gas would migrate out of the rock into reservoirs from which it could be drawn, but some geologists thought that there was fuel to be liberated from the shale itself.

A man looking at a sign that says

Denver Post via Getty Images

An operator at a Conoco gas station inspecting a sign announcing President Jimmy Carter’s 10-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, May 13, 1980

As the Pulitzer Prize–winning energy expert Daniel Yergin relates in his recent book The New Map, one such believer was George Mitchell, a Texas oil and gas man who had read the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth during the energy turbulence of the 1970s and become concerned that the world would run out of natural resources. An environmentalist of sorts, Mitchell favored natural gas as an early adopter of the idea that it was a cleaner alternative to coal. His company, Mitchell Energy, drilled in North Texas for nearly two decades, and spent a quarter of a billion dollars on different methods of hydraulic fracturing with little to show for it—until 1998, when the company finally hit on the right mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, and gas production soared. Four years later, they were acquired by another company that combined Mitchell Energy’s successful experimentation with fluids with a new technology that is critical to the modern process of fracking: horizontal drilling, which allows a well, sometimes drilled as deep as two miles underground, to turn sideways, potentially branching off in multiple directions. In the second half of the 2000s, US gas production, which had fallen to pre-1970 levels and stagnated for decades, took off.

It was around 2008 that some industry leaders began to realize there was so much natural gas now available that prices could collapse. Having struck gas too successfully, companies invested in learning how to use fracking technology to extract a more lucrative commodity: oil. Surveyors determined the Permian Shale Basin, in Texas and New Mexico, to be second-largest oil field in the world, and the US soon became a major oil exporter. At a time when there had been much overheated talk that the world would soon pass “peak oil,” the sudden abundance unlocked by fracking was stunning.

The industry also came up with another partial economic solution to the surplus of natural gas—exporting it as liquified natural gas, or LNG. Although the process requires extremely expensive infrastructure, both to compress it and to “regasify” it at destination, compressing gas into liquid form enables shipping in tanks rather than pumping through pipelines—making intercontinental and long-distance transcontinental trade viable. The first shipment of US LNG left for Brazil in 2016, after $20 billion dollars of investment.

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These technical triumphs, however, were marred from the start by controversy about fracking’s environmental costs. Complaints that the chemicals released during extraction pollute the water supply reached wide public attention when dramatic videos started appearing of tap water on fire as a result of methane, the main component in natural gas, migrating into wells. (Methane is not toxic to drink when dissolved in water, but it is flammable, and has occasionally ignited in confined areas, like basements.) One Pennsylvania homeowner was instructed to open a window if he wanted to take a bath, to vent the methane from his tap water.

A greater hazard, if a less visually striking one, is the billions of gallons of briny wastewater that fracking produces per year, when the fluid injected into wells mingles with water in the shale and returns to the surface. Wastewater is a potent brew of chemical additives, most of which are proprietary industry secrets, along with fuel remnants and whatever substances the water picks up from deep underground in the shale. These can include naturally occurring radioactive material, as well as mineral salts in quantities that can make the effluent several times saltier than seawater. Studies of wastewater have also detected harmful chemicals like benzene, a known carcinogen, in high levels, as well as endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, environmental toxins like ammonium, and bromide and iodide, which can form toxic by-products in drinking water. And most wastewater is disposed of simply by injection back underground.

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There is disagreement about how widespread contamination of groundwater and aquifers is, though scientists on both sides of the issue concur that it happens most often due to cracked wells, or spills and accidents, rather than being intrinsic to the process if it is carried out without mishap. Yet aging infrastructure—as well as instances of noncompliance with regulations—are nearly impossible to avoid, and difficult to quantify. The latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency, from 2016, states that the EPA “found scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances” (which include the injection of fracking fluids “directly into groundwater resources”), but due to “data gaps and uncertainties,” its scientists could not determine how frequently these incidents occurred or what their severity was.

Even the anecdotal evidence is disturbing, however: in just one such recent incident, thousands of gallons of wastewater escaped from an injection well in Noble County, Ohio, over four days this February, killing fish in a nearby stream. The well had not been in use for years and seems to have escaped the notice of regulators. The president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association said in a statement: “It is unclear why the well was not plugged, as the regulations require the well to be plugged once determined to be non-producing.” The EPA estimates that there are at least 2 million abandoned, improperly plugged oil and gas wells around the country, but due to incomplete data, likely many more.

Even wastewater that is properly disposed of can pose a serious problem: as the injected liquid migrates through pores in layers of rock deep underground and interacts with faults, it can trigger earthquakes. Oklahoma, a state not previously known for its seismic activity, had more 3.0 magnitude or higher earthquakes than California for several years at the height of the fracking boom: some nine hundred in 2015, compared to two or three per year before fracking took off. The level of activity decreased after 2015, when new regulations on disposal came into effect and a fall in oil prices reduced fracking activity, but damaging quakes still happen there. Scientists also fear that even if fracking totally stopped, the effects of prior disposal could last for six to ten years, as the water spreads deeper through the rock.

In some jurisdictions, concerns about the environmental effects of fracking have led to outright bans. France, which has significant natural gas deposits, prohibited fracking in 2011, largely because of worries about water contamination, as have Germany, Ireland, and Bulgaria; and moratoriums or restrictions are in place in a number of other countries. In the US, several states have banned the practice, citing health risks from water and air pollution, as well as fear of seismic activity. New York banned fracking in 2014, and this April, California banned new fracking permits, though the restriction only goes into effect in 2024.

Concerning as those effects are, it is the methane emissions caused by fracking that are most damaging to the industry argument that natural gas is a “cleaner energy.” Methane remains in the atmosphere for much less time than carbon dioxide, but it is a far more potent greenhouse gas, with as much as eighty-six times CO2’s heat-trapping effect over a twenty-year period. It can also escape at almost every stage of the natural gas production cycle—during drilling, fracking, and storage, from pipelines, homes, and abandoned wells. A frequently cited 2018 study in Science by researchers from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and several universities estimated that in 2015, the gas industry leaked the equivalent of 2.3 percent of total gas production, which is 60 percent higher than the EPA’s estimation, the discrepancy mostly coming from malfunctions at a concentrated number of so-called super-emitter industry sites. Determining the methane leak rate is difficult because methane can escape from so many different parts of the complex supply chain (other estimates for the leak rate range from 1.5 percent to 4.9 percent), but it is the million-dollar question of any debate about natural gas’s climate impact: an earlier study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that a leak rate of 3 percent would negate any benefit in reduced carbon emissions to be gained by switching energy production from coal to gas.

Fracking machinery surrounded by a gate and a sign that says Capitan Energy

Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

The base of what is referred to as a “Christmas Tree,” which is installed at the top of a fracking well, Capitan Energy, Culberson County, Texas, May 7, 2020

In addition to unintended emissions, oil and gas producers also deliberately burn off natural gas, a practice known as flaring, as well as simply venting it unburnt, for a mix of technical and economic reasons. It is a common misconception that fracking refers only to the extraction of natural gas; in fact, most shale fields contain both oil and gas, and because oil is more profitable, oil economics drive those of gas. A 2020 study found the methane leakage rate in the huge Permian Basin in Texas, the largest oil-producing region in the US, to be 3.7 percent of all gas produced there, partly because of aging infrastructure, but also because its producers are more focused on oil than natural gas. Low gas prices offer little incentive to invest in the costly pipelines needed to transport gas away; hence flaring and venting, which rack up entirely wasteful emissions.

Abrupt changes in demand also can lead to additional forms of waste: during the winter storm in Texas in February, with power plants down and pipelines frozen, producers burned off in a single day a quantity of gas that could have powered tens of thousands of homes for a year. “Just immediately closing the gas tap is not possible,” a shale researcher told The New York Times.

A forthcoming UN report is expected to advise that the oil and gas industry reducing methane emissions must be a critical part of combating climate change, and that expanding natural gas use will make it impossible to meet the goal of limiting warming to the Paris Accord goal of 1.5˚C. Natural gas proponents, such as the American Petroleum Institute, a major lobby group, argue that the industry has reduced its methane leakage rates over time, and can reduce them further through technological innovation and “smart regulation.” Avoiding invisible leaks in a huge, privately owned network of natural gas infrastructure, regulated primarily at state level, would always be difficult. Given the way more comprehensive industry regulation is a hostage to America’s highly partisan federal politics, it is all but impossible. 

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As soon as Trump came into office, his administration began to loosen environmental regulations of the oil and gas industry. From 2017, the Bureau of Land Management repeatedly sought to overturn an Obama-era 2016 methane regulation called the Waste Prevention Rule, which limited the amount of venting and flaring allowed on federal lands. (Both upheld and overturned at various times, and still tied up in the courts, the regulation has never gone fully into effect.) The effort continued, and last August, Trump’s EPA reversed another 2016 federal requirement that oil and gas companies monitor and repair methane leaks from wells, pipelines, and storage sites. The Trump administration also reversed a downward trend in new federal leasing of land to oil and gas developers, accelerating its push in the lead-up to the November election.

Although the Rhodium Group, a research firm, estimated that Trump’s five largest environmental regulatory changes could add 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2 (or equivalent greenhouse gases) to the atmosphere by 2035, emissions stayed on a decade-long trend of modest decline for most of his presidency, thanks chiefly to replacing coal with natural gas, together with increasing use of renewables and slightly decreased fuel demand. If you set aside the methane leaks (non-negligible problem as they are), this is natural gas’s claim to climate responsibility: that it has allowed us to move away from coal. Though true of the US and EU, this is not the case worldwide, which has seen a 9.2 percent increase in coal use between 2009 and 2019, largely due to the expanding economies of China and India. And elsewhere, the glut of cheap gas has helped to spur new energy use rather than any “transition” away from coal. The International Energy Agency’s 2019 report noted that energy use worldwide grew the previous year at double the rate it had in 2010, and “the biggest gains came from natural gas, which emerged as the fuel of choice…accounting for nearly 45 percent of the increase in total energy demand.”

That trajectory altered when the pandemic caused a worldwide slump in demand for oil and gas last year. Prices hit a historic low in April—negative $37.63 per barrel, meaning that producers had to pay buyers to take oil away. The world began to run out of storage capacity for oil: all available tankers were filled and left to float on the seas. The IEA’s latest report, for 2021, forecasts that while world oil markets are now “rebalancing,” “they may never return to ‘normal’…Rapid changes in behaviour from the pandemic and a stronger drive by governments towards a low-carbon future have caused a dramatic downward shift in expectations for oil demand over the next six years.” Middle East oil exporters are expected to gain most from any recovery, as US producers finally turn away from the speculative excesses of past years’ debt-fueled drilling.

The economic prospects for natural gas are worse still. The oil-focused shale fields in Texas and the Midwest produced 40 percent of US natural gas before the pandemic, essentially as a by-product, and while demand for gas did not decrease too much during the pandemic (homes still need to be heated), production of this “associated gas” was cut along with that of oil. The economics are no better in Appalachia, where there is only gas and no oil in shale reservoirs: numerous big gas companies there have laid off workers and cut production. As a result, coal is forecast to regain some modest market share.

Even if fracking is now far less profitable, though, fracked oil and gas are certainly not on their way out on their own at the speed necessary to avert climate catastrophe by halving emissions globally by the 2030s and reaching zero emissions by 2050. After decades of growth, 2020’s 6.4 percent drop in global emissions is expected to be merely a blip. 

So what does Biden, the fracking realist candidate, propose to do as president in order to realize the transition he promised?

In office, he has already taken steps towards the most aggressive climate change mitigation measures of any president. His proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill addresses climate change in a number of ways, such as incentivizing the manufacture of electric cars, upgrading and partially decarbonizing the electric grid, and creating jobs plugging abandoned wells. He also set a goal of a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030 for the US at April’s international Leaders Summit on Climate (in which South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said, perhaps with a barb, that the international community was “delighted to have the United States back working with all of us”). But the bar for US climate action is low, and there are limits on Biden’s ability to act given that the Democratic majority in the Senate hinges on the support of pro–fossil fuel senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia—the infrastructure bill hasn’t passed yet, and the emissions goal is nonbinding. Reflecting on the administration’s climate measures so far, John Kerry said, “Is it enough?  No, but it’s the best we can do today and prove we can begin to move and get the technologies and find the easier path and then, hopefully, get the job done.” Biden has taken more concrete measures to undo some of the damage caused by Trump: a reinstation of the Obama regulation on methane detection technology just passed in the Senate, and is expected to pass in the House in the next few weeks.

On his first day in office, Biden moved to cancel construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was intended to transport oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the US. But a second big project, the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which carries fracked shale oil from North Dakota to Illinois, through the tribal lands and major water source of the Standing Rock Sioux, is already in operation. Despite momentous Indigenous resistance, suppressed with military-style counterterrorism measures, DAPL was completed during the Trump administration and now transports more than half a million barrels of oil per day. Last month, contrary to activist hopes, the Biden administration announced they would allow the pipeline to continue operating while the Army Corp of Engineers carries out a lengthy environmental review. Another tar sands pipeline, the Enbridge Line 3 expansion in the Great Lakes region, is currently under construction despite protests by the Anishinaabe.

True to his campaign promise, Biden’s Department of the Interior indefinitely paused new oil and gas leases on federal land while it carries out a review of leasing policy. His appointee as secretary of that agency, Deb Haaland (a member of the Laguna Pueblo), has said in the past, “If I had my way, it’d be great to stop all gas and oil leasing on federal and public lands because those lands belong to all of us,” though it remains to be seen whether she will have her way. Either way, some analysts predict that producers would simply move to private lands with little overall effect on emissions.

Where is scientific opinion on whether it’s technologically feasible to turn away from fracked oil and natural gas? A 2015 paper by researchers led by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson in the journal PNAS concluded that the US could meet all its energy demands with wind, water, and solar resources by the first half of the 2050s, eliminating natural gas, biofuels, and nuclear power. Six years later, renewable energy has developed such that a recent report by Carbon Tracker, a London-based financial think tank argues that we have the ability to capture 100 times the current global energy demand with existing solar and wind technology, and costs have dramatically decreased over the past several years: “the technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political.” Of course, the political challenge is immense, as is the task of building and updating the necessary infrastructure to take advantage of all this electric energy. Other researchers, like those behind UC Berkeley’s 2035 Report or Saul Griffith at the nonprofit Rewiring America, believe the most important thing is to begin decarbonizing as rapidly as possible, which will radically decrease emissions by 2035, rather than worrying just yet about how to get all the way down to zero.

Some critics argue that any practicable environmental strategy must involve reducing the bloated carbon footprint of the affluent rather than simply a technological fix. And both models could be more ambitious in cutting reliance on existing energy production methods: the 2035 Report forecasts a 70 percent reduction in natural gas use, but still maintains some natural gas capacity, while Griffith calls for doubling our nuclear energy use. Both these authorities do, however, agree that we must immediately stop adding to our oil and gas infrastructure. As the journalist and 350.org campaigner Bill McKibben put it in a recent New Yorker newsletter: “Definitely don’t build anything new that connects to a flame.”

Protestors holding signs at the construction site reading

Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Protesters including residents from Brownsville, Brooklyn, demonstrating against construction of the North Brooklyn Pipeline, December 10, 2020

In New York City, where, as in the rest of the state, fracking production has been banned for years, activists have been protesting at construction sites for the North Brooklyn Pipeline, intended to carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania—through the majority-Black neighborhoods of Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant—to a liquid natural gas facility in Greenpoint that is being upgraded and expanded. In Gowanus, Brooklyn, and Astoria, Queens, both neighborhoods with long legacies of pollution, one company plans to build new power plants to replace old ones running on fracked gas—on the rationale that these will be cleaner and more efficient. But as Laura Shindell of Food and Water Watch points out, in order to meet New York State’s new emissions goal of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030, such plants will have to stop operating within twenty years. Why not move toward renewables now?

“Elected officials have been promising to make this transition for the last decade and we haven’t seen meaningful progress, and we’re long overdue,” she told me.

The T-word again, as elusive to realize as ever. The environmental writer Jedediah Purdy has described how the built world, our “infrastructure Leviathan,” has its own seemingly unstoppable momentum—“a kind of material fate.” The story of fracking is one of dogged, decades-long commitment to the Leviathan of oil and gas. Today, even as the economics no longer hold up, and in the face of growing activist agitation, the energy industry tenaciously clings to fossil fuels. In California, forty-two cities have banned or severely restricted natural gas hookups in new construction, and the state is considering a statewide ban. At the same time, though, four other states have created laws preemptively restricting the ability of cities to pass such a ban.

The energy industry argument that we need to keep building fracked fuel infrastructure as a “bridge” to an emissions-free future is less plausible by the day. For all the disruption, sacrifice, and loss, the pandemic has demonstrated that we already have the two most important tools we need to combat climate change: the capacity for focused, well-funded scientific inquiry to quickly address a challenge, and the ability to take collective social action to save lives. We need to stop transitioning already and begin at last.

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