By Kayla Zacharias
Hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as “fracking,” is a process used to recover oil and gas from shale rock. Over the last two decades, the technique has helped the United States become a global leader in natural gas production.
By allowing energy producers to access significant gas reserves, fracking has contributed to the growing energy independence of the U.S. Another benefit is that natural gas is considerably cleaner than coal, emitting 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide – but it is still a fossil fuel, and fracking is not without its impacts on the environment and human health.
Many of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are harmful if consumed by humans, and the process releases toxic gases. A variety of health problems have been associated with living near fracking sites, including respiratory problems and pregnancy complications.
Around 2010, the public consciousness around fracking started to heighten in response to reports of drinking water on fire in regions where the practice was prominent. Researchers at Duke University published the first study linking hydraulic fracturing to this phenomenon, which is a result of chemical contamination. In the years since, fracking has become an increasingly polarizing topic, especially among environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.
Throughout his presidential campaign, President Biden repeatedly reaffirmed that he did not intend to ban fracking. However, on Jan. 27, he issued an executive order that paused new oil and natural gas leases on public lands. Although some have equated this to an effective ban on fracking, there is little evidence to support that claim; the vast majority of fracking is done on private land, and the order doesn’t put a stop to fracking that already occurs on public lands – only to new permits.
Although a federal ban on fracking is unlikely, some states are starting to take matters into their own hands. In California, two state senators recently proposed a bill that would ban fracking in the state by 2027. In New Mexico, a bill that would place a four year moratorium on new fracking permits, giving lawmakers and environmental officials time to study impacts of the technique, is making progress in the state senate. Some argue that the proliferation of fracking has greatly outpaced research on the topic.
Recent actions to address natural gas drilling at the state and federal level have raised the question of what the impacts of a fracking ban would be. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy recently wrote a report to the president on that very topic. If fracking was banned nationwide beginning in 2021, the U.S. would become a net-importer of oil and natural gas by 2025, according to the report. Also by 2025, natural gas prices would rise an estimated 244% above 2019 prices, which would have a “crippling economic effect through increased household energy bills… and deteriorating competitiveness of the U.S. energy supply in the global market.”
The report concludes that impacts of a fracking ban on the broader U.S. economy would be widespread. “Compared to a world with hydraulic fracturing, in 2025, the United States economy would have 7.7 million fewer jobs, $1.1 trillion less in gross domestic product, and $950 billion less in labor income. A hydraulic fracturing ban… would burden American families, small businesses, hospitals, manufacturers; would have negative impacts on virtually all other sectors of the economy; and would inevitably stunt the post-pandemic economic recovery.”
The loss of jobs associated with a transition away from carbon-heavy and environmentally harmful energy sources is a significant concern for many in communities whose economies rely on the extraction of fossil fuels. However, considering the state of the climate crisis, many see this transition as inevitable; President Biden’s climate plan commits the U.S. to achieving a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.
Considering that fracking is a highly polarizing topic, finding reports on the impacts of a fracking ban from unbiased sources was difficult – at present, most speculation about potential impacts are coming from sources aligned with the fossil fuel industry. Regardless of what the consequences might be, a national ban on fracking is highly unlikely. Not only has President Biden publicly stated that he does not support such a ban; he doesn’t have the authority to make it happen. The quality of drinking water in the U.S. is maintained through the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the injection of fluid underground through the Underground Injection Control (UCI) Program. In 2005, the Safe Water Drinking Act was amended to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the UIC Program; changing this would require an act of congress, and little interest has been expressed in doing so.