The growing public concern over climate change has cast much-needed attention on efforts to curtail carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel power plants. But in the name of protecting the environment, there are calls from two prominent Democratic presidential candidates to curtail hydraulic fracturing or fracing (pronounced fracking), a necessary procedure used in the completion of horizontal wells drilled to produce oil and natural gas. That misguided approach would ultimately result in increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse-gas emissions due to the need to burn more coal to generate electricity, potentially damaging the very environment we seek to protect.
Those who disparage the use of fracing ignore that America’s greenhouse emissions are 13 percent lower today than in 2005, the year the shale revolution was launched. The sharp decline in emissions occurred even with an economy that is a third larger.
This advance isn’t the result of government regulations or the generous subsidies and mandates available to renewable energy sources; rather it has been the shift from coal to natural gas in electricity production that has helped reduce greenhouse emissions in the U.S.
Due to fracing, we use far more natural gas today than at any other time in our history, and the basic attributes of gas remain the same – low cost and great abundance. In terms of price, gas sets the competitive benchmark for new “base-load” power generation. And the economic value of gas is likely to rise as electricity demand grows and gas continues to replace coal.
America’s natural gas boom is also helping to reduce greenhouse emissions abroad. Exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas approached 800 billion cubic feet last year from virtually zero a few years ago, enabling other countries to use less coal. With LNG capacity expected to double by the end of this year, export volumes will continue to grow significantly. By 2024, the U.S. is projected to become the world’s largest exporter of LNG.
Cheap natural gas, made available by fracing, has made the U.S. the world leader in carbon mitigation. The market implications are enormous. The United States will play a major role in the growing international market for natural gas that will be needed to meet global goals for reducing greenhouse emissions. With this added benefit, America becomes a wealthier society. Fracing strengthens the economy, creates jobs, and provides business opportunities for American factories. The oil-and-gas industry bought $48 billion worth of manufactured products in 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says.
Despite all of this, two presidential candidates – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – say that, if elected, they will push for a national ban on fracing. And they want more of the nation’s energy to come from renewable sources such as wind and solar.
But saying no to natural gas doesn’t automatically lead to the substitution of wind and solar power – it may lead to the continued operation of coal plants. The problem with renewables is that they operate when the weather allows, not when grid demand calls for it. Together wind and solar power supply only 7 percent of the nation’s electricity and 4 percent globally, greatly overshadowed by fossil fuels at 85 percent.
Fracing opponents often act as if it has no economic or environmental benefits. Consider what we would lose if fracing were banned. Because there is no technology available for large-scale electricity storage, gas turbines must provide backup power for solar energy on days when the sun isn’t shining and on days when the wind isn’t blowing.
Without the boom in domestic gas production, our nation’s progress in reducing oil imports would be lost. Since 2005, the level of oil imports has dropped from 60.3 percent to 12 percent today and long lines at gasoline stations are a distant memory.
What’s more, turning over the U.S. economy to fracing opponents may expose the country to even greater climate harms. U.S. emissions have fallen to mid-1990’s levels because of the growth in gas, which burns cleaner than coal. That would never have happened without fracing. Opponents of fracing ought to realize that neither solar energy nor wind energy is going to do the trick, at least not soon enough to make a difference in the battle to prevent climate change.
Dr. Robert W. Chase holds B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering from Penn State. He served as professor and chair of the Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology at Marietta College from 1978 to 2015. He worked previously for Halliburton Services, Gulf Research and Development Company, and the Department of Energy and has consulted for numerous companies.