Fracking Bans Do More Harm Than Good

 

Takeaway

  • Support for fracking exceeds opposition in all shale gas states except New York
  • Natural gas-fired power plants produce half the amount of greenhouse gas that coal combustion emits
  • 59 percent of Americans say they are “not familiar” with fracking

An impressive list of environmental organizations and celebrities would like to see hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, banned or severely curtailed. Ironically, the shale gas revolution, a revolution partly enabled by fracking, seems likely to produce enormous environmental benefits for Americans. Yet opponents of shale gas production continue to turn a blind eye to that possibility, just as the right once turned a blind eye to climate science. 

Fracking involves the injection of water, sand and chemicals deep into shale formations to fracture rock, freeing formerly inaccessible natural gas. To be sure, we are still learning about the environmental impacts of fracking, but there is no real support in the scientific literature for the notion that fracking poses greater pollution or health risks than those we regularly accept in connection with our reliance on the primary alternative electric generation fuel – coal. 

Americans are still learning about fracking, but are cautiously optimistic about its promise. The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll has revealed that a surprising 59 percent of Americans say they are “not familiar” with fracking. Among those familiar with fracking, a plurality (47.5 percent) support its use (against 35.7 percent opposed). Support exceeds opposition in all the shale gas states except New York. 

Some locals support shale gas production because of its economic benefits (royalty payments to landowners, jobs, local taxes, etc.); for others, opposing fracking makes sense. 

When a natural gas well is being drilled and “fracked,” the production area is a hive of truck traffic, power generators, and other action that can transform a quiet rural landscape into an industrial area. These mostly temporary, though significant, local impacts are mostly amenable to regulatory solutions, but it is little wonder some people don’t want to endure them. 

However, just because it is logical for some to oppose fracking, it does not follow that fracking should be banned, any more than opposition in Martha’s Vineyard to the Cape Wind project implied the need to ban wind energy.

To the contrary, natural gas-fired power plants give us electricity that yields half the greenhouse gases (and much smaller fractions of the more deadly pollutants) that we get from coal combustion. That is good for the environment, for all of us. 

A February 2011 study by health professionals published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences concluded that our reliance on coal for energy costs hundreds of billions of dollars and causes tens of thousands of premature deaths per year, far more than any other energy source. An August 2011 analysis published in the American Economic Review suggested that substituting natural gas for coal in the electric generation mix would yield enormous health and environmental benefits. 

For better or worse, we leave decisions about which electric generation fuels to use to the market. Now market forces are doing what regulation and lawsuits could not. Gas-fired power plants are displacing coal-fired plants because gas is cheaper to use, thanks in part to shale gas production. 

How, then, do we reconcile the anti-fracking movement with what we know about the relative health and environmental risks of fracking compared to alternative forms of energy production?  

The problem here is that the beneficiaries of shale gas production are voiceless. Those unlucky enough to be killed by inhaling fine particles, mercury, or other byproducts of coal combustion cannot identify their killer. By contrast, those whose neighborhood character is altered by the presence of fracking operations know just where to lay the blame.

Shale gas production can and should be regulated. But given that it seems likely to yield enormous benefits for Americans, banning hydraulic fracturing is a bad idea.

Associate Professor David Spence researches energy and environmental policy at the McCombs School of Business. He also contributes to The UT Law Grid, a new blog presented by the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration and Environmental Law.

 

Disclaimer

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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