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Democratic Debate Shows Split over Shale Gas Fracking

Like parts of the nation, the Democratic presidential contenders are split over hydraulic fracturing, which is the technique used to withdraw shale gas from a mile beneath the earth’s surface.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont told viewers that under no circumstance would such fracking be allowed to continue on his watch while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it could continue — under certain conditions. Clinton, who is tied closely to President Obama, is walking a fine line; the Obama administration has relied on natural gas to replace coal used for electric generation, which has resulted in steep cuts to carbon dioxide levels.

“By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” Clinton said. “First, we’ve got to regulate everything that is currently underway, and we’ve got to have a system in place that prevents further fracking unless conditions like the ones I have mentioned are met.”

To be clear, natural gas is regulated mostly at the state level, whose regulators are said to be closer to the industry and to the people’s affected by drilling. But the Obama administration feels that state regulators may be too close to industry with regard to certain things and it wants drillers to disclose the chemicals they are using to frack.

Communities, in fact, have expressed real concerns about what may be invading their drinking water supplies — a point underscored at Sunday’s debate, which was held in Flint, Mich. where the water has been poisoned by lead.

And, the president wants drillers to capture their methane releases, which could be costly, although they could re-sell the natural gas byproduct to manufacturers and chemical producers. A similar regulation would also require that the drilling fluids be re-cycled or re-injected back underground. Methane is a heat-trapping emission far more potent than carbon dioxide but which has a shorter lifespan.

As for Sanders, he said that the scientists with whom he is speaking are saying that the dangers of fracking are just too great. Instead, the emphasis needs to be on maximizing renewable energy sources and energy efficient technologies.

“I talk to scientists who tell me fracking is doing terrible things to water systems all over this country,” said Sanders. “We’ve got to transform our energy system to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. We have to do it yesterday.”

For the record, many credible studies show that fracking is safe, including those from Stanford University and the Environmental Protection Agency. The wells that are unsafe are those that are too shallow. Other studies by Harvard University have added that a middle ground must be found.

According the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas has risen from about 18 percent of the electric generation market in 2005 to about 32 percent today while coal has fallen from half of that market to about 34 percent now.

Natural Gas is replacing coal and helping the administration meet its goal of a 32 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030. The implication of the evolution is that heat-trapping emissions have fallen by 10 percent since 2005.

The Obama administration is not about to relent on this issue, although it has requested greater monitoring of shale gas drillers. Moreover, the natural gas boom here has been a job creator during a period of economic uncertainty. When other industries struggled, oil and gas drilling stepped up.

Not only is the fuel used to feed electric generators. But it is also used in the chemical and manufacturing processes: Natural gas liquids – ethane, propane, butane, and others – are split off and used as valuable feedstocks to create products for everyday use before getting exported all around the world.

There’s at least 2,515 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves, amounting to a century’s worth, according to the Potential Gas Committee. Prices are now $2.35 per million Btus – much less than what the Europeans or Asians are paying.

The American manufacturing and chemical industries are thriving as a result, while their foreign counterparts are investing billions here as well. Witness the rebirth of petrochemical plants all over this country — the equivalent of $258 billion in new manufacturing output by 2020 and $328 billion by 2025, says the American Chemistry Council.

“The world is awash in natural gas,” adds Robert Bryce, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Power Hungry, in an earlier talk with this writer. “The US is leading the world. We have the rigs and the pipes. We own the minerals beneath our feet. Other nations are a decade or two behind.”

To some, though, natural gas is no panacea. The Sierra Club, for example, is intent on getting past coal but it does not see natural gas as a solution to the carbon problem.

Pointing to the International Energy Agency’s studies, it says that such a strategy will still result in temperature rises of 3.5 degrees Celsius by century’s end — far more than the 1.5 degrees-2 degrees Celsius limit set by the COP21 climate accord in Paris in December.

Despite strong feelings on both sides, it’s a near certainty that natural gas will retain its status as the primary fuel used to power electric generation while its byproducts are used to bolster manufacturing. Therefore, the emphasis ought to be on better regulations of fracking, not trying to prohibit it altogether.

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