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Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts promises that if she is elected president, she will issue an immediate unilateral prohibition — based on some presidential power that she’ll invent as soon as she gets around to it — on the method of natural-gas production known colloquially as “fracking.” Other Democratic contenders, including Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris of California, have made similar promises.
Another way of saying this is that the Democrats promise to induce artificial scarcity in the energy market. Yet another way of saying this is that the Democrats promise to create effective subsidies for such relatively high-pollution energy sources as coal and diesel at the expense of a relatively low-pollution energy source in the form of natural gas. And yet another way of saying this is that the Democrats propose to subsidize petroleum producers from Russia to Iran at the expense of small to midsize businesses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, Texas, and other energy-producing states.
What we call “fracking” relies on two relatively old technologies: hydraulic fracturing, which is used to break up underground shale formations to release oil and gas trapped therein, and horizontal drilling, which allows for the efficient recovery of that released oil and/or gas. Combining those two technologies with recent advances in everything from materials development to seismic imaging has revolutionized energy production in the United States — and that gets up the noses of certain people, prominent among them so-called environmentalists who are categorically opposed to all new development of conventional energy sources — even when that development comes with important environmental benefits. Their opposition is ideological and quasi-religious. It is based only very loosely on genuine environmental concerns.
Which is not to say that there aren’t any. Unconventional gas production, like any other kind of energy production, brings with it environmental challenges. These are mostly unsexy problems involving things such as wastewater management — there’s a lot of poisonous and occasionally radioactive stuff deep underground, and the water used in hydraulic fracturing brings some of that up with it. In the early days of fracking, that wastewater would be turned over to municipal water-management authorities, who often just diluted it and dumped it into the nearest river; thankfully, better techniques (including recycling fracking water) have since been developed. Other, more dramatic environmental problems associated with fracking range from the fictitious to the exaggerated. Fracking can contribute to “induced seismicity,” meaning little earthquakes that are generally but not always too small to be felt at the surface. Fracking can also lead to drinking-water contamination through “methane migration,” meaning the leakage of natural gas from wells into groundwater — but it is worth keeping in mind that such methane migration also happens both naturally (“burning springs” were documented in North America as far back as the early 1700s) and through other activity such as digging water wells. Studies have suggested that fracking is in fact less likely to produce this kind of contamination than is conventional drilling, in part because fracking typically happens at a depth far removed from accessible groundwater.
Those are the environmental challenges. The environmental benefit is this: In the first two decades of this century, the United States substantially reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions, more so than in many Western European countries pursuing active national programs of carbon-dioxide reduction. This happened because the abundant production of natural gas drove down prices and made it attractive to substitute that relatively clean-burning fuel for such relatively high-emissions sources as coal and heating oil for purposes such as generating electricity and heating buildings. The United States achieved these reductions while emissions were climbing in most of Asia and Europe. And it did so without any heavy-handed regulation or federal bullying.
The fundamental issue here isn’t methane or carbon dioxide or climate modeling: It is gullibility. On the one hand, the Democrats offer a pie-in-the-sky “Green New Deal” through which greenhouse-gas emissions might be radically reduced at no real cost to anybody and no meaningful economic disturbance . . . at some point in the future . . . by giving today’s Democrats a great deal of money and power and by implementing a bunch of things that look for all the world like the longstanding Democratic policy wish-list, many of them only remotely connected to energy or climate change. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to substitute — right here and right now — relatively clean sources of energy for relatively dirty ones, and to do so mainly by relying on the fact that producers and industry will do so on their own simply by responding to ordinary economic incentives — incentives rooted in abundance and in the emergence of a world-beating U.S energy industry that creates millions of good jobs in the process.
This offers a rare opportunity for agreement between intellectually honest parties worried about climate change and those who think that the climate threat is exaggerated but welcome the abundant domestic production of natural gas for other reasons. But the Democrats are having none of that.
A more responsible “green” agenda would consist of helping to enable gas production with a minimum of environmental trouble by regulating and managing the real and undeniable environmental challenges involved in energy production in an intelligent and productive way — as, indeed, many state environmental agencies have shown themselves more than able to do when it comes to fracking. Making absurd, fanciful promises — and inducing environmental terror — is a fine way to run a presidential campaign but a poor way to run a country.
Despite the Lenten, renunciatory attitude of the environmentalists, cutting off that plentiful and affordable supply of natural gas would not mean simply forgoing a certain amount of energy consumption and the emissions that go along with it. Rather, it would mean paying higher prices for the same energy, possibly switching in some cases from natural gas to coal or diesel or other relatively high-emissions fossil fuels, or relying more heavily on imports instead of enjoying our current position as the world’s largest petroleum producer and a major energy exporter. In exchange for what? Some vague promise that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to train newly unemployed oilfield workers in Pennsylvania to install energy-efficient windows in Brooklyn?
We have high hopes for other parts of the energy industry: Solar panels, for example, have proved valuable for powering fracked gas wells, which tend not to be located next to power outlets. The success of fracking is one of those prototypical great American entrepreneurial success stories, a very fine example of the magic that can happen when the profit motive brings together capital, expertise, and commitment. If the same process means that one day we can power spaceships with chopped kale and good wishes, then no one will be better pleased than we. But, at the moment, the best thing the federal government can do is to let prosperity emerge on its own, without the clumsy attentions of Senator Warren or one of the other clever lawyers who believe that we can talk our way into abundance.
The American gas industry is one of the best things our country has going for it economically. That the Democrats propose to sacrifice it to ideology and political convenience is one of the better arguments for keeping them far away from the levers of power.