The Politics of Fracking

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Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter spoke last week at The University of Texas at Austin as part of the Energy Symposium speaker series, addressing the next big shale gas development in the state, the Eagleford Shale in South Texas. In his remarks, Mr. Porter emphasized the importance of sound science, good information and public engagement in the fight to maintain public acceptance of hydraulic fracturing among Texans.

This is good advice. Some of the opposition to hydraulic fracturing is based on misunderstanding of the risks posed by the fracturing process itself. That is not to say, however, that hydraulic fracturing does not raise important environmental considerations. To the contrary, it does, and Mr. Porter spoke of the Railroad Commission’s efforts to address those considerations by requiring disclosure of the ingredients in so-called “fracturing fluid,” the liquid mixture that is injected into the ground to fracture the rock, in order to produce gas. He also emphasized the importance of preserving the state’s groundwater resources — the fracturing process consumes large amounts of water.

However, when he turned to the subject of federal regulation, his talk transformed from a reasoned plea for communication and transparency to an overtly political stump speech. The EPA has not announced any plans to regulate hydraulic fracturing. Rather, it is currently studying the regulatory environment of hydraulic fracturing, and plans to announce its conclusions next year. Yet Mr. Porter repeatedly accused the Obama Administration of conducting “economic warfare on the state of Texas,” and rejected “northeastern liberals telling us what to do” regarding shale gas development.

The general public must accept hydraulic fracturing in order for the United States to fully take advantage of the enormous opportunity presented by our shale gas resources. The industry can earn that acceptance by providing the skeptical with more and better information, and by earning their trust. While it’s perhaps true that some will always oppose shale gas development, most people are open-minded and evenhanded about the balance between energy needs and environmental protection.

Perhaps the best evidence of this can be found among the very “northeastern liberals” Mr. Porter ridicules. The State of New York banned hydraulic fracturing in most of the state shortly after the release of the movie “Gasland,” an anti-hydraulic fracturing documentary that was nominated for an Academy award. However, after considerable study, New York’s northeastern liberal Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, seems poised to lift the ban on fracturing, and to propose regulations on fracturing some of which are not unlike those proposed by the Railroad Commission.

As for the EPA, we don't know what it will propose at the conclusion of its study. It may seek to require its own disclosure of the contents of fracturing fluids, or to lift the exemption from Safe Drinking Water Act requirements currently enjoyed by the oil and gas industry. However, neither would sound a death knell for the hydraulic fracturing industry.

It is human nature to fear unfamiliar risks. Regulatory agencies (including the EPA) exist in order to protect the public from environmental harm; it is entirely appropriate that the agency respond to public concern by studying the issue, as is doing now. It is difficult to see what is to be gained from adversarial hyperbole, such as characterizing those efforts as “economic war.” Transparency and respectful dialogue is much more likely to help hydraulic fracturing earn broad, long-lasting public acceptance.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

David Spence

Professor, Business, Government & Society,

Professor Spence's research and teaching focus on business-government relations with emphasis on energy and environmental regulation. He received his...

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