Fracking pros and cons elicit fierce debate in living rooms and legislative chambers across the country. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Fracking, In Brief
Fracking pros and cons elicit fierce debate in living rooms and legislative chambers across the country. As economic and environmental concerns increasingly clash, ideological and legislative battles over fracking will only intensify. So, let’s explore the basics, arguments for and against, and where each party stands today.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling technique used to extract natural gas from deep underground reservoirs. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, fracking involves injecting underground rock formations with high-pressure fluids. This produces fissures that “allow trapped gas or crude oil to flow through a pipe to a wellhead at the surface.”
The technique originated in the 1940s. Miners injected gasoline or crude oil into wells to quicken their flows. Technological advancements have allowed producers to access previously unexploitable reservoirs locked in tight geologic formations, like shale. That, paired with increasing demand for oil and international energy crises, fueled a fracking boom in North America.
The US now produces nearly all of the natural gas it consumes — thanks to a combination of horizontal drilling and fracking. Thirty-five states produce natural gas. Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio account for almost 70 percent of the country’s annual supply.
Now, let’s explore fracking pros and cons, starting with pros.
First, improved fracking techniques allow the US to produce natural gas domestically, improving national security. Disputes over highly profitable fossil fuel reserves have long spawned conflicts in the Middle East and developing countries. Many believe that achieving energy independence — through domestic gas and biofuel production — insulates the US from these conflicts.
Secondly, fracking advancements unleashed new economic opportunities. The US is now one of four countries exporting shale oil and gas. A decade of increased oil and gas production added $1.2 trillion and 9.3 million jobs to the US economy, one study indicates. Increased domestic production has also helped lower domestic gas prices.
When burned, natural gas emits 50-60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. Between 2010 and 2018, over 500 coal-fired US electrical power plants retired. More than 100 of those converted to burning natural gas. This trend has helped the US reach record low C02 emissions. As Climate Change News reports, “US CO2 emissions in 2019 were the lowest they have been since 1992. Per capita emissions were lower in 2019 than they’ve been at any time since at least 1950.”
Now, let’s examine fracking pros and cons from opponents’ point of view.
First, fracking may be the root cause of increased methane levels in the atmosphere. Natural gas is composed of 70-90 percent methane — the world’s second-most powerful greenhouse gas. The problem, National Geographic explains: Methane warms the planet over 80 times more than the same amount of CO2 in its first 20 years. Then, methane becomes CO2, which can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
Another con: Groundwater consumption and pollution. Fracking one well requires 2 million to 5 million gallons of water — an unsustainable amount, environmentalists argue. Many governments don’t require producers to disclose all of the chemicals used in fracking fluids, which can potentially seep into local groundwater supplies. Concerns that poorly cemented wells allow natural gas to leak into groundwater also continue to mount.
Lastly, the boom and bust cycle of fracking limits long-term economic gains. Fracking is a complex, expensive process. As oil and gas prices decrease, demand for more expensive gas decreases. The result: Companies that jump into the industry quickly disappear, depressing once booming communities. Decommissioned fracking wells are also poorly regulated, risking the health and safety of local communities.
Where Republicans Stand
However, 65 percent of conservative Republicans and roughly 40 percent of moderate Republicans support more fracking. Pew also finds an age divide within the party. More younger Republicans than older Republicans prioritize alternative fuel development over expanding fossil fuel production.
In line with public opinion, Republican party leadership largely supports fracking as well. Forbes contributor Robert Rapier recently noted that former Republican President George W. Bush’s policies accelerated fracking in the US. “Many of those laws were staunchly criticized by environmental groups, but there is no doubt they helped spur an enormous increase in US oil and gas production.”
While remaining an ardent coal supporter, former Republican President Donald Trump maintained support for fracking as well. His administration rescinded his Democratic predecessor’s methane emission regulations to “… cut burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry.”
Trump also ensured fracking remained a centerpiece of his 2020 re-election bid. Through rallies and debates, he aimed to convince voters in oil-rich swing states that Democrat Joe Biden would ban fracking nationwide.
Where Democrats Stand
In contrast, the majority of Democratic voters today oppose fracking. According to Pew Research, just 21 percent of Democrats support expanding fracking operations. Liberal Democrats are even less supportive, at about 12 percent.
This partisan divide holds steady even within top oil-producing states. YouGov finds that 66 percent of Pennsylvania Democrats oppose fracking, compared to 70 percent support from Pennsylvania Republicans. Additionally, US states imposing permanent or temporary fracking bans — Vermont, Maryland, New York, and California — lean Democratic.
However, top Democratic party leaders are more supportive of fracking. Former Democratic President Barack Obama considered natural gas a “bridge fuel” that could help lower carbon emissions while seeking alternative clean energy sources. Although, his administration did require oil and gas producers to monitor and limit methane gas emissions.
On the campaign trail, current Democratic President Joe Biden also maintained support for fracking. That put him in opposition with more progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, who supported a nationwide fracking ban. To appease both sides, Biden ultimately promised to prohibit fracking on federal land only, which he ordered soon after Inauguration Day. Congressional Democrats are also working to reinstate methane regulations previously imposed by the Obama administration.