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In defense of fracking

Even as efforts to address global warming and fossil fuel consumption on an international level continue to struggle and sputter, it’s easy to overlook the reality that– largely of its own accord– the United States reduced its carbon emissions by 450 million tons in the five years to 2012, a decline that can largely be attributed to the emergence of natural gas obtained through the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” With global gas production projected to increase by 50 percent from 2010 to 2035, fracking– while perhaps both an imperfect and interim measure– offers both a credible path towards responsible energy security for the United States and a compelling energy alternative for developing and developed nations alike.

In America, certainly, fracking– which employs the injection of water, sand and chemicals into hard shale rock to break it up and extract gas trapped therein– has been a revelation. From 2005 to 2012, the percentage of America’s overall gas production provided by the practice jumped from 4 percent to 24 percent. That transition has created hundreds of thousands of jobs, induced plummeting gas prices and even potentially reduced– according to Citibank– the nation’s current-account deficit by 1.2 to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product.

Fracking’s potential can equally be demonstrated by the international context. European and Asian nations pay several multiples of what Americans pay for their gas, while– only a few years after investing heavily in infrastructure to expand gas imports– the United States may soon become a net gas exporter. As Europe grapples with fracking regulations and Asia struggles with inadequate infrastructure, that likely won’t change in the near future. That transformation has broader implications for energy diplomacy too, strengthening America’s hand in negotiations with energy producers like Russia or Saudi Arabia. At current production rates, moreover, America’s known gas reserves– half of which lie in “unconventional” sources like shale– will last for more than a century, confirming the practice as a long-term alternative. Similar resources have been found around the world, from Canada to China, and few other nations will hesitate to take full advantage.

While fracking offers a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fossil fuels, its potential is admittedly limited by both its finite nature and the continued production of harmful emissions as a side effect. It makes sense, of course, to continue to invest in currently inadequate renewable energy sources and to consolidate the use of nuclear power into a safer format. Pending significant advances in green technology that enable cost-efficient integration into the economy, however, replacing the global consumption of fossil fuel energy would necessitate the construction of another 6,020 nuclear power plants (or 14 times the current global total). A “stop-gap” measure– like fracking– that mitigates the damage of fossil fuel consumption while offering a viable interim energy source may therefore be the most appropriate measure through the medium term.

Committing to fracking may also necessitate, however, an adjustment in the way that the United States approaches the practice. In recent years, fracking has benefited spectacularly from loose regulation and generous federal and local subsidies. While concerns expressed by environmentalists over methane leakage may have little scientific basis– given, admittedly, a limited amount of research on the subject altogether and the potential omission of secondary emissions from the study’s findings– as is the case for apprehension over the industry’s heavy water usage and potential to poison groundwater or induce earthquakes,  it makes little sense that fracking is exempted from basic legislation like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act. Adhering to such regulation and adopting appropriate measures across America’s 20,000 wells, according to the EPA, would add a mere seven percent to the cost of the average shale-gas well. Far better, then, to embrace such steps and fracking together, while continuing to develop bigger and braver solutions for the long term.