The issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has taken on a life of its own. But with so much misinformation, it is hard for the general public to know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. The truth is – as with any polarising issue – somewhere in the middle. New York appears to have accepted that and decided to move forward to permit fracking in all but the most sensitive areas of the state.
But even as New York is poised to lift its moratorium on fracking, New Jersey’s legislature has moved to impose one. What this illustrates is just how divisive this issue has become.
Let us look at some of the pros: Hydraulic fracturing in a series of stages, combined with horizontal drilling, has given the US oil and gas industry a new lease of life. After years of declining production, the technology has enabled the country to grow not only natural gas but oil production. And with a country that consumes so much energy and has yet to make any serious attempt to scale back its usage, this can only be a good thing. It means more domestic supply to meet demand, which translates into less money leaving the country for imports and heightened energy security. And more drilling, of course, means more jobs and more economic activity.
Now here are the cons: if drillers are irresponsible about how they use the technology – and with far more than 1,000 operators drilling and producing across the country there will always be some who are – it hurts everyone. The damage to the environment and people could be very real. One only needs to think of Macondo, BP’s well at the centre of last year’s accident in the Gulf of Mexico.
As the EPA investigates the environmental risks associated with fracking, the industry must ensure it has no Macondos. By proving the industry can safely and responsibly develop the US’ domestic resources, companies eventually win over the public, and politicians, who are so afraid of the technology they are banning it outright.
But the industry cannot do this if it is not permitted to frack at all. Take New Jersey, which has just passed a ban on fracking this week. While New Jersey is not a major gas producer – and does not seem to have the geology ever to be – this is, nonetheless, a symbolic gesture that might well ensure that what it does have is never developed. That leaves the burden to other states, such as Texas, to continue producing the gas used by those in New Jersey.
While this is not fair, the industry will say it would rather deal with states individually than have a restrictive federal law passed down that might, in the end, restrict the use of fracking in industry-friendly places such as Texas.
Certainly there are risks of that happening, but it seems to make the most sense for the US to approach this issue on the federal level. If a fair, science-based investigation can be conducted, and the industry be given an opportunity to defend itself against the charges of environmentalists, perhaps a workable solution can be found - one that permits fracking to continue across the country with the necessary safeguards to prevent a disastrous onshore event, such as Macondo was to the offshore industry.
That way states like New York – which was among the first of a string of places to put a temporary ban on fracking - and New Jersey will not scare off the public and politicians in other states from permitting something that might well be done safely – and limit imports and grow energy security as much as possible. For a country that consumes so much energy and cannot seem to get its arms around a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon emissions with a real committment to renewables and energy efficiency, this seems the best course to take.