The Fracking Debate: Past, Present, And Future

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This Wednesday, Daniel Raimi, senior research associate at Resources for the Future, and lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, spoke for the launch of his new book, The Fracking Debate. The book, published by the Columbia University Press as part of their Center on Global Energy Policy Series, offers considers the complex impact of the shale revolution. Raimi spoke about several of the issues raised in his book and then engaged in a panel with other fracking experts moderated by CGEP Founding Director, Jason Bordoff. Staff writer Zöe Sottile went and learned some things.

A bleak future or a victory of innovation?

Up until this lecture, all I knew about fracking was what I had gleaned from the plotline on Bojack Horseman where Mr. PeanutButter runs for governor. Luckily, now I’m basically a fracking expert. Daniel Raimi started his talk by discussing semantics: what is fracking, exactly? He explained that those who oppose shale oil – oil derived from oil shale rock fragments – often use “fracking” to describe all activities related to the oil and gas industry. The more narrow definition, however, describes the injection of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into shale or other rock sources, a process formally known as “hydraulic fracturing”. Fracking is often associated with high environmental costs. However, as Raimi highlighted in his talk, real communities in areas impacted by fracking often have diverse and unpredictable opinions.

In Dimock Township, Pennsylvania, for instance, fracking caused water contamination in 2009. One water well actually exploded as a result of methane contamination, a phenomenon Raimi referred to as “stray gas”. Raimi explained that stray gas is not common, but still affects hundreds of thousands of people in Pennsylvania alone. In response to the contamination incident, the state restricted drilling. However, local officials testify that most people in the community itself actually want more drilling: fracking has benefited them economically.

Similarly, in the Permian Basin in Texas, thousands of old oil wells leak oil. Some residents’ backyards contain wells and pipelines containing poisonous gas that can cause damage and sometimes instant death. Raimi emphasized that nonetheless, most Texans support the oil and gas industry – they’re just concerned about it happening in this particular place. Here Raimi pointed out that the conversation about fracking is often reduced to a black-and-white issue, divided down partisan lines. But that dichotomy erases the “nuanced realities” that people actually experience. In one of the parts of the lecture that I found most interesting, Raimi asserted that those who live closer to oil developments tend to support fracking, but that their views are not simple. For those who live farther from developments, party affiliation predicts perspective on fracking almost perfectly: Republicans support almost all fracking and Democrats critique it.

For his finale example, Raimi brought up Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States. When the sea ice thaws, the population of four thousand Native Alaskans hunt bowhead whales and divide the meat amongst the population. Residents store the meat in their naturally cold basements and subsist on it throughout the year. However, climate change triggered in no small part by the oil industry is complicating this tradition. Rising seas cause coastal erosion, and the Permafrost residents use in their basements is melting, damaging homes and spoiling the meat. Nonetheless, Raimi stated that most Native Alaskans support the oil industry while still harboring concerns about climate change. Raimi claimed that the Shale Revolution has benefited the climate in the short term: it helped displace coal as an energy source, and American greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest since the 1990s. But the future of shale is less clear, and the lower price of shale may lead to an increase in energy usage and thus a spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

Raimi ended his talk by discussing the window of opportunity currently facing the oil industry. He claimed that, “technologies of revolution present opportunities, they don’t define outcomes.” He called for partisans to step back from extreme opinions and emphasized once more that policymakers and citizens need to grapple with the full complexities of fracking and the future of energy in the U.S. He also at points used the phrase “the whole enchilada”, which was delightful and a great end to an informative evening.

Oil Wells in Texas via Twenty20

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