I have always viewed politicians that promise to ban hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as “fracking” — with some level of suspicion. In fact, a year ago as candidates were making these promises I explained Why A Ban On Fracking Will Never Happen. Those promises have always signaled one of three things to me.
The Significance of Fracking
First, the candidate may not understand the significance of fracking to U.S. oil and gas production. So let’s review that significance.
Fracking has actually been around since the late 1940s and has been used extensively to promote higher production rates from oil and gas wells.
Fracking involves pumping water, chemicals and typically sand down an oil or gas well under high pressure to break open channels (fractures) in the reservoir rock trapping the deposit. Oil and gas do not travel easily through these shale formations, which is why they need to be fractured. The sand holds those channels open, allowing the oil (or natural gas) to flow to the well bore.
While fracking has been around for decades, the shale boom ensued when fracking was combined with another common technique used in the oil and gas industry — horizontal drilling.
Like fracking, horizontal drilling was invented decades ago. As its name implies, horizontal drilling involves drilling down to an oil or gas deposit and then turning the drill horizontal to the formation to access a greater fraction of the deposit. The marriage between these two techniques meant that an oil or gas well could suddenly access a far greater percentage of a reservoir. As more producers embraced these techniques, U.S. oil and gas production soared.
Thus, a candidate who promises to ban fracking is promising they would take away a technique that enabled U.S. dependence on foreign oil to plummet. It would take away a technique that has caused an economic boom in battleground states like Pennsylvania.
So not only is it a dumb economic promise to make, it risks losing critical voters.
Maybe They Know But Don’t Care
Perhaps the candidates do know the significance of fracking, but they still think it is critically important to move away from oil and gas. I understand that argument, but it once again ignores a critical point.
The U.S. economy still runs on fossil fuels. That won’t always be the case, but it will still be the case for the foreseeable future. The most ardent opponent of fracking still moves about the country using fossil fuels that were produced via fracking.
Passing policies designed to accelerate the move away from fossil fuels is perfectly understandable. Crippling the supply of fossil fuels — which would ultimately increase U.S. dependence on foreign oil again — is not.
Maybe They Are Pandering
The real reason many of these candidates make unrealistic promises during campaign season is they are pandering to the more idealistic members of their party.
After all, it would be hard to imagine that Joe Biden is unaware of the significance of fracking to the U.S. economy and to energy security. He and President Obama presided over the largest expansion of fracking — and subsequently U.S. oil and gas production — in U.S. history.
Hence, you will often see a candidate make an extreme promise while campaigning only to adopt a more moderate position after they win the nomination.
Biden Clarifies His Position
This is likely behind Biden’s evolution of his position from “no new fracking” when campaigning against Bernie Sanders to the position he recently took in a CNN town hall when asked about the topic. Biden was answering questions from voters in Pennsylvania, and one asked whether he support the continuation of fracking.
After saying that he does support the continuation of fracking, moderator Anderson Cooper pressed him on whether he was trying to have it both ways. Quoting from the CNN transcript on the event:
COOPER: Let me just follow up on that. You said you won’t ban fracking but you wanted to gradually move away from it ultimately. It sounds like you’re trying to have it both ways that that I mean, politically, it’s understandable why you might say that but it — if fracking contributes to climate change, and climate change is an existential threat. Why should fracking continue at all?
BIDEN: Well, fracking has to continue because we have transition, we’re going to get to net zero emissions by 2050. And we’ll get to net zero power admissions by 2035. But there’s no rationale to eliminate right now fracking, number one. Number two, those jobs that are out there, whether it’s a IBW (ph) worker, or whether it’s an iron worker, or a steel worker. What I’m proposing is that, you know, when Trump thinks about global warming, he thinks hoax. When I hear global warming, I think jobs.
That is a reasonable position on fracking. The reason it has to continue today is the consequences of ending it right away would be significant to the U.S. economy.
But it’s really a moot point anyway. The President doesn’t have the power to end fracking, and it is unlikely Congress has an appetite for passing such legislation. The way to get rid of fracking is to reduce demand for oil and gas. Eliminating fracking without reducing that demand is a prescription for increasing U.S. energy dependence.
Joe Biden understands that now. In fact, given the history of fracking during the Obama Administration, he surely always has.