Several presidential candidates have promised to ban hydraulic fracturing, a technology that is a major reason the United States leads the world in carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions this century, has enjoyed an unprecedented 10 consecutive years of economic growth and is on the brink of long-coveted energy independence. A fracking ban would likely reverse all of these trends, which is why International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol’s view that such a policy “would not be good news” for the United States is a massive understatement.
Though it might sound counterintuitive, a fracking ban would likely have no positive climate change impact. Even the Environmental Defense Fund acknowledges switching to natural gas for power generation resulted in 60 percent of the U.S. power sector’s CO2 emissions reductions from 2005 to 2015. That switch has been made possible by cheap and abundant natural gas made possible by fracking. A fracking ban would make natural gas less plentiful and far more expensive, likely leading to more coal-fired generation and higher emissions.
Some assume renewable power generation from wind and solar would fill the void. But the fact remains that wind and solar energy is intermittent and therefore an unreliable large-scale substitute. In fact, natural gas is necessary to back up wind and solar power when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining, which is why former Clinton White House advisor Paul Bledsoe recently said of the shale revolution, “It’s a key reason renewables have grown so quickly.” To see what might happen if fracking were banned, we need look no further than Germany, which has fallen well short of its emissions reduction targets and seen its energy prices soar despite banning fracking and implementing policies prioritizing renewables.
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What is far more obvious than the climate implications of a fracking ban is the fact that the extreme policy would devastate our economy. The U.S. oil and gas industry is responsible for more than 10 million jobs and eight percent of U.S. GDP. Sixty-seven percent of our energy comes from oil and natural gas, and between 80 to 85 percent of U.S. oil and natural gas production comes from wells that were hydraulically fractured. So it’s no surprise a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas study found the shale industry alone was responsible for 10 percent of U.S. GDP growth from 2010 to 2015. And it’s no mystery that millions of jobs would be lost of a technology responsible for a vast majority of domestic production were prohibited.
And although a fracking ban would definitely reduce domestic oil and natural gas supply, that doesn’t mean demand would wane. Case in point: California, which has implemented policies intended to curtail oil production but has seen its demand remain strong and its imports increase significantly as a result. Beyond the continued need for oil and natural gas for power generation and transportation, wind and solar offer no alternative whatsoever to oil and natural gas use in the industrial sector, or the roughly 6,000 petroleum-based products that are essential to our everyday lives. The list includes key components of infrastructure needed to generate renewable energy, such as solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles. Ironically, a renewable energy transition would require a whole lot of fossil fuels.
These are just few reasons why a U.S. fracking ban would be celebrated in Russia and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. would almost certainly return to the days of being dependent on foreign oil and natural gas, re-assuming its unenviable position directly under the thumbs of hostile nations that simply don’t share our values.
These are not just an industry views. As the Associated Press reported this week, “President Barack Obama celebrated the benefits of fracking — welcoming the energy independence and lower costs that come from an increase in domestic production.” Daniel Raimi of the left-leaning Washington D.C.-based think tank Resources For the Future has also said, “I think for the United States as a whole, it seems to me that the shale revolution has brought about far more benefits than it has risks and challenges.”
To be clear, climate change is a critical issue that will require difficult policy decisions. However, an extreme blanket fracking ban is not the answer. It would devastate the economy and upend our newfound energy security — all while yielding none of the intended climate benefits.
Seth Whitehead is the executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Resources Board, which is a nonprofit organization that provides public awareness and education programs regarding the upstream Illinois oil and gas industry.