Why the Democratic nominee for vice president did an about-face on fracking.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE
uring the Democratic presidential debates in 2019, California senator Kamala Harris was asked by a member of the audience about “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing), the process of drilling into the earth and blasting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into shale rock to recover gas and oil.
“There’s no question I’m in favor of banning fracking,” said Harris, citing environmental concerns. “This is something I’ve taken on in California. I have a history of working on this issue.”
Harris has since reversed course.
In a recent interview with CNN correspondent Dana Bash, the Democratic nominee for vice president said she supports Joe Biden’s official position on fracking, which would freeze out new fracking permits but not ban the practice altogether.
“Joe is saying, one, those are good-paying jobs in places like Pennsylvania,” Harris said, before adding that Biden also supports renewable-energy alternatives.
It’s no accident that Harris mentioned Pennsylvania, and not just because the state has 20 electoral votes and is currently considered a tossup by RealClearPolitics.
Natural gas produced by fracking has been instrumental in the revitalization of the Keystone State’s economy. It has become to Pennsylvania what cheese is to Wisconsin, corn to Iowa, and oranges to Florida.
Natural-gas production in Pennsylvania surged by nearly 50 percent between 2014 and 2018, government statistics show. The 6.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas produced annually in Pennsylvania ranks second in the U.S., trailing only Texas, a state that could soon be displaced by Pennsylvania as the country’s largest energy producer. The Energy Information Administration says Pennsylvania’s production of dry natural gas, a clean-burning hydrocarbon, is growing faster (and in greater volume) than that of any state at any time in American history since the agency began recording figures in 1951.
Naturally, this has been a boon to the economy of Pennsylvania, which relies heavily on industry and has suffered from the nationwide, decades-long decline in manufacturing. A recent New York Times article described fracking as “an economic savior” that arrived in southwestern Pennsylvania as the U.S. economy was still in a free fall from the Great Recession.
“There were just so many jobs,” Debbie Gideon, a retired community banker, told the Times. “It was crazy.”
The numbers are indeed crazy. The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Petroleum Institute published a study in 2017 stating that the gas and oil industry supported 322,600 jobs in the state and contributed $44.5 billion to its economy.
But the economic benefits of fracking go far beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. A 2015 academic paper from the left-leaning Brookings Institution shows that fracking benefits all regions of the U.S.
In the study, University of Michigan scholars Ryan Kellogg and Catherine Hausman conclude that from 2007 to 2013, natural-gas prices dropped $13 billion annually as fracking expanded, resulting in roughly $200 in savings each year for gas-consuming households. When all types of energy users are included — commercial, industrial, and electric-power users — annual savings total $74 billion per year, the authors conclude.
“The US fracking revolution has caused natural gas prices to drop 47 percent compared to what the price would have been prior to the fracking revolution in 2013,” the Brookings Institution concluded.
Justin Wolfers, co-editor of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, observes that fracking made it easier to extract gas, shifting the supply curve and reducing prices. “Overall that makes consumers better off,” Wolfers explains.
But what about the environmental concerns over fracking cited by Harris and others?
These concerns include claims that fracking uses too much water, can cause tremors, and can lead to contamination of drinking water. Like any industrial activity, fracking carries risks, but the evidence suggests that the environmental costs of fracking have been exaggerated.
Hydrogeologist David Yoxtheimer of Penn State put the water usage of fracking into context, explaining that of the 9.5 billion gallons of water used in Pennsylvania each day, natural gas development consumes just 1.9 million gallons. That is about 3 percent of the water used daily in livestock (62 million), and less than 2 percent of the water used in mining (96 million). A separate Duke University study found fracking accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s industrial-water use.
Analyzing 50 years of data, researchers in a University of Alberta study concluded there’s virtually no connection between fracking and seismic tremors. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking did not present a threat to the nation’s water supply, though the agency clarified the following year that contamination was possible in “some circumstances.”
The EPA’s most recent study found anecdotal evidence of drinking-water impacts but cited “significant data gaps and uncertainties in the available data” that made it impossible to assess “the national frequency of impacts on drinking water” from fracking.
Perhaps the biggest environmental concern over fracking is that it extracts fossil fuels.
Many Democrats have spent the last decade promising to rid the nation of these fuels, even relatively clean-burning natural gas. But the reality is that the U.S. economy could not run without fossil fuels, and attempts by central planners to force the nation off of them are bound to inflict severe economic pain on American households.
It’s refreshing to see candidates such as Biden and Harris finally warm to the economic benefits of fracking, even if these reassurances don’t square with Biden’s guarantee to rid the U.S. economy of fossil fuels.
But for most Americans, the economic benefits of fracking have long been clear. Just ask Pennsylvanians.