Can the U.S. Go Frack-Free?

The presidential race amplifies a debate that’s more complex than the typical struggle between industry and the environment.

by Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Union-Tribune / March 21, 2016
Crews run a fracking operation that runs a mile underground near Medicine Lodge, Kan., in September 2011. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT)

(TNS) — Earlier this month, both candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for president took shots at "fracking" — hydraulic fracturing, the process that extracts oil and natural gas by using high-pressure liquids to break through shale rock formations.

In a March 6 debate, Hillary Clinton said, "By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place."

“My answer is a lot shorter,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, said. "I do not support fracking.”

All three Republican candidates for president support hydraulic fracturing.

The presidential race amplifies a debate that’s more complex than the typical struggle between industry and the environment.

On a warming planet, does fracking keep the nation’s energy mix chained to fossil fuels and further delay a future where clean energy sources dominate? Critics say it does.

However, the fracking boom also is largely responsible for utilities’ accelerating shift from coal-fired power plants to cleaner-burning natural gas generators. Meanwhile, there’s fierce debate about potential threats to ground water and methane leaking into the atmosphere.

Less controversial is the energy industry’s economic and geopolitical importance. In less than 10 years, hydraulic fracturing – along with the technology of horizontal drilling – has dramatically increased oil and gas production, making the United States an energy power that has rivaled, and by some measures surpassed, countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia.

A ban on fracking “would be great for the Middle East and terrible for the U.S.," said Sabrina Demayo Lockhart, communications director for the California Independent Petroleum Association. "Hydraulic fracturing has given the U.S. an affordable, reliable energy resource."

But Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, said a growing renewable energy market makes the prospect of going frack-free seem not so far-fetched.

"If someone said we're not there yet, I'd say the science seems to indicate and reports indicate that we are there," Jacobson said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated on Tuesday that production from hydraulically fractured wells made up about half of total U.S. crude oil production.

Renewable energy may be growing but the same agency last year projected that 62 percent of U.S. energy consumption will come from a combination of oil and natural gas in 2040.

And while the Obama administration has sought stricter regulations for fracking on federal lands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year released a study saying it did not find evidence that fracking "led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has promoted an "all of the above" energy program that includes natural gas as a bridge fuel to help the U.S. reduce its reliance on coal and boost clean energy sources.

"If the wells are drilled and treated appropriately, we know how to do that part of it," said DOE undersecretary Franklin Orr, who was in San Diego earlier this week, talking to clean energy business leaders.

"If the formation is a deep one and the hydraulic fracturing can be kept in the zone where it's supposed to be, I don't think there's any question that it can be done in a way that it can be operated safely and do so in the long term," Orr said.

But a number of environmental groups insist taking fracking off the table is a realistic, near-term scenario.

"We couldn't do it tomorrow but by 2030, 2040, 2050 we could be meeting our energy needs, and we could be moving our transportation system off of fossil fuels," Jacobson said in a telephone interview from his office in Sacramento. "It's certainly possible. The question is, do we have the political will to get it done?"

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