In the 2020 Vice Presidential Debates last week, ‘fracking’ was a buzzword mentioned five times in a bid to undermine each other’s economic and climate change agendas.
Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden was accused (falsely) of intending to ban natural gas extraction through fracking, while Vice President Mike Pence could not himself acknowledge that climate change was an urgent issue on the ticket.
The debate jab was an overt attempt by Mr. Pence to win back voters concentrated in Pennsylvania, a key swing state, whose livelihoods are dependent on the natural gas industry.
But with climate change rhetoric finally moving into the mainstream and natural disasters more frequent, one has to wonder: how bad is fracking, really, for the environment?
Fracking, or ‘hydraulic fracturing,’ is in short a process by which high pressure injections of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground are used to release oil or gas previously trapped inside its ‘fractured’ rock layers. It is a decades-old drilling technology that is extensively used in the US relative to other countries, and is controversial among environmental and political circles.
In the mid-2000’s, US companies figured out how to combine fracking with horizontal drilling to extract oil and gas from shale rock formations at a low price, leading to huge increases in domestic energy production.
This has led to a recent US fracking boom in an attempt to bolster U.S. energy security against disruptions in the supply of imported fossil fuels (think of your gas prices barely budging despite civil tensions in Iran, Libya, and Venezuela).
Advocates of the practice assert that this type of drilling is a safe and clean method of extracting natural gas, and helps reduce global warming by reducing our coal consumption.
From an economic perspective, fracking has created millions, yes, millions of relatively new, profitable jobs across many Midwest rural communities that have been economically depressed. Opponents argue that its global warming benefits are greatly overstated, that industry regulation is lackluster, and that fracking is actually highly harmful to the environment.
These effects include air pollution, groundwater contamination, and surface water pollution. Frack fluid has contaminated water supplies of several communities and exposed people to highly toxic chemicals and carcinogens.
It has also led to fracking areas such as Ohio and Oklahoma becoming much more earthquake-prone, leading to the biggest recorded quake in Oklahoma in 2011.
So with the basics in order, let’s go back to that deceptively simple question. How bad is fracking for the environment, and, political ramifications notwithstanding, what would be the consequences of a ban? The reality is that while natural gas is a better alternative to coal and petroleum products, it is merely what experts say is a ‘bridge fuel’.
It is a temporary fix to compensate for a century of addiction to coal, but even that argument is contingent on a serious global initiative to jumpstart a transition to clean energy. The dilemma for policymakers at present should not be whether fracking is a greener, long-term alternative (oil and gas from fracking are still fossil fuels), but whether the net benefits of using fracking as a stepping stone to wind and solar outweigh its costs.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) notably introduced a bill to complement her jointly-sponsored Green New Deal that would ban fracking across the country by 2025, ban fracking within 2,500 feet of homes and schools by February 2021, and would provide a transition for working families in the fracking industry.
In contrast, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have unequivocally promised not to ban fracking, and have promised a more palatable, less ‘radical’ climate change plan that is also specifically not the Green New Deal.
Not only do the discrepancies between the two plans open the party up to increased lines of attack, the nominee’s plan is not reflective of the general population’s desire to take a strong stance on harmful environmental practices.
While everyone can agree that Biden’s plan is indeed more palatable to both older voters and voters directly employed by the fracking industry, frankly many young people are tired of this pragmatic approach spurred on by bad-faith oil and gas companies.
A situation can be envisioned in which the transition period that fracking may buy us simply turns into a complacent and exploited resource, failing to galvanize the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It can be envisioned because that is what has been happening for the last twenty years, over my own lifetime, since the first IPCC report warned about global warming in 1990.
This complacency is characteristic of an ongoing pattern of U.S. policymakers being unwilling to take drastic steps to secure the next generation’s future, and it is infuriating.
The fact is that we need radical, and we need it now. To put it bluntly, many of the legislators who have the power to chart a desperately needed course of action will be gone in twenty, thirty years.
They will not be alive to inherit the catastrophic mass migration and natural disasters that our children will inevitably deal with if we do not take drastic measures to clean up our act. Although we are up against a ticking time bomb, there are still steps we can take to spread the word.
As young people, it is imperative that we move past the noise of the climate denialists and begin to educate ourselves on progressive policies that we can organize and advocate for. By policy makers choosing profit over people they are setting us up for great danger in the near future.
On the issue of fracking, while certainly better than the alternative, the Biden campaign still falls woefully short. Even though neither of the candidates are very promising in this area, it is still extremely important to vote and have our voices heard.