Notes from Underground: The Frack Dance

This blog, along with our previous post regarding pipelines, provides an impression of key topics at the intersection of environmental protection and accountability at the start of the Biden administration.

The new United States administration has already shown an inclination to go beyond merely undoing the deregulation of the Trump administration. But many good indicators for increased accountability and a focus on environmental protection do not add up to an eternal win for public health and safety.

Halting the Keystone XL pipeline is encouraging, as is selecting a cabinet that includes those who have opposed new pipelines: both are choices consistent with the expressed, necessary goals of limiting reliance on fossil fuels.

A pause on new gas and oil leases on public lands is also encouraging, but it is temporary, limited, and ambiguous. It fails to answer the many questions that linger about the future of hydraulic fracturing. Indeed, the debate about whether to ban fracking has played out like an intricate dance where the fossil fuel industry is not only leading, but also calling the tune.

Who’s in Charge?

At first glance, the fossil fuel industry may appear to be rocked back on its heels by the new administration’s determination to limit reliance on oil, gas, and coal. As noted previously, in response to concerns about public and environmental health and safety, as well as well-publicized protests and impassioned public opinion, the pipeline industry is already facing scrutiny and introspection under the Biden administration.

Yet questions remain regarding the new administration’s responsiveness to science and public opinion where hydraulic fracturing is concerned: Is fracking in or out? Is it part of an overall plan for energy independence, or is it a way to prolong the harm done to the planet and atmosphere through the production and burning of fossil fuels? Is it a source of economic boom or environmental bust? The answer to each of these questions cannot remain “both.”

But the fossil fuel industry has successfully framed the debate to be about jobs, revenue, and “energy independence,” and not about human and environmental heath, externalized costs, and industry accountability. As recent confirmation hearings have shown, potential cabinet members are being forced to defend their stances against pipelines, fracking, and fossil fuel reliance generally. It is politically inexpedient for the appointees to return fire by questioning politicians who recite industry talking points, accept industry campaign contributions, and had no problem confirming fossil-fuel lobbyists to cabinet posts under the previous administration.

At least until they are confirmed, President Biden’s appointees cannot safely question senators to their faces about why they approve of increased reliance on dirty and unsustainable energy, why they accept the false choice between jobs and clean energy, and why, instead of seeking solutions, they accept an imperfect reality that cannot even offer short-term energy security at the cost of long-term or even irreversible harm to public health, the environment, and the Earth’s climate.

Muddy Waters

US administrations of both parties have exerted a great deal of effort appeasing the leaders of an industry that has long relied on misinformation and policy manipulation.

The Obama administration struggled with an “all of the above” energy policy that was designed to seem fair and balanced, but was ultimately supplanted de facto by a firmer stance against the fossil fuel industry’s agenda.

Now, after four years given over almost entirely to corporate interests at the federal level, a strong swing back toward sustainability is not only politically justified, but necessary to counteract the damage inflicted on the environment by attempted wholesale deregulation.

Among the cabinet picks who will most influence relevant policies, President Biden has tapped individuals from across the spectrum on the topic of fracking. They range from those strongly opposed to the practice of hydraulic fracturing (Deb Haaland for Interior), to those who appear interested in balancing on that elusive label of “pragmatic” (Michael Regan at EPA, Jennifer Granholm for Energy Secretary), to those who have actively argued against a fracking ban (Gina Raimondo for Commerce Secretary, Neera Tanden to head the Budget Office).

Where Biden himself fits on the spectrum remains ambiguous, although he has made efforts to explain that he opposes a total fracking ban. He may have painted himself into a corner by not creating an explicit “out” based on the results of research, public opinion, and other factors, as Hillary Clinton tried to do during her 2016 candidacy. But science and public opinion may provide another route to stricter regulation and a phase-out of fracking as it is currently practiced.

Basing decisions on sound science is the perfect accountability tool and studying the impacts of fracking on public health and the environment should be a no-brainer. Studies that show risk to the water supply, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with fracking, long-term blight, earthquakes, and other potential downsides of fracking can provide a pragmatic basis for going beyond halting new public leases and moving toward a total ban if research and public opinion support doing so.

On the most basic level of accountability, a public examination of the trade-secret chemicals used in the fracking process needs to be undertaken. In the interest of public health and transparency, the Biden administration should see scrutiny of fracking chemicals as an easy route to revising the president’s “no permanent fracking ban” position.

Public Power

Despite the popular saying, elections are not all local; the arguments on behalf of those impacted have to be made so that those who believe fracking leads to cheaper or cleaner energy can be informed about the risks the practice poses and understand the inadequacies of the arguments on which they rely. To change policy on the national level requires buy-in from localities that benefit as well as from those that suffer.

In addition to the oft-refuted arguments about fracking providing cheaper, cleaner energy, arguments about jobs and energy independence are also on weak footing – and yet these continue to be the starting point for debate, just as the industry desires.

To summarize: when externalized costs including blight, environmental harm, public health issues (including work time lost to sickness and injury), and government subsidies are considered, fracked gas and oil are not cheap – it’s just that many of the costs are paid by the general public rather than solely by producers and consumers.

When pollution including GHGs, waste and contamination of clean water, and leaked oil, methane, and LNG are taken into account, “clean” is at best relative, and only when compared to coal. Earthquakes related to fracking are an additional area of concern.

Arguments about job creation have also faced valid criticism. Only strong federal and state policies to support those impacted by the needed transition away from dying, deadly industries stand between sensible energy policy and energy policy based on myth, hope, science denial, and greed.

So what arguments does the fracking industry have left? Only the dream of “energy independence.” When the long-term costs, expenses, and risks and the historical bad-faith actions of the fossil fuel industry are taken into account, and given constant advances in renewable energy, it may become clear that the best route to “energy independence” does not go through the fracking industry.

To the extent that fracking arguments can be reduced to public health versus mostly-private wealth, public opinion must provide the foundation for resolution. But a distinction must be made between the voices of those adversely impacted by fracking, and those who stand to benefit without experiencing direct negative impacts. It is the distinction between the science that urges caution and the profit motive which throws caution to the wind.

In the ongoing dance between the seductive embrace of colossal quantities of domestic fuel and the pragmatic rejection of reliance on dirty energy, it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration can act decisively. Ultimately, though, the decision on fracking’s future will be made by the public, through the demand for reliable energy and accountability, the support for or rejection of President Biden’s policies, and through the election of representatives in 2022 and beyond.