Keep on fracking: Our view

Editorial Board | USA Today

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made opposition to fracking a key part of his campaign in Tuesday’s primary in New York, which along with Vermont has banned the controversial process of producing oil and natural gas by cracking open rock formations with a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals.

The campaign trail is unfriendly to nuance, and the argument over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a prime example of a complex issue that gets oversimplified. When rival Hillary Clinton answered a debate question by listing the various ways she would regulate fracking, Sanders said: “My answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking.”

Voters deserve a more thoughtful answer. Fracking has gone from an exotic drilling technique to a commonplace procedure that has spurred a remarkable U.S. energy boom and now produces about half of all U.S. oil and gas. This boom has created jobs, boosted domestic manufacturing and brought the USA closer to energy independence.

Moreover, natural gas from fracking has displaced coal as a primary producer of electricity, significantly reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Giving up fracking, as Sanders demands, would have enormous costs. Is it worth it?

In this case there is a simple answer: No.

The case against fracking rests on two criticisms. One is that the nation should be using less oil and gas, and more renewables such as solar and wind. Second, fracking is supposedly  so dangerous and destructive that no amount of regulation can make it safe. Both of these objections are weak.

Solar and wind represent America's energy future, but right now they supply just 2.4% of the nation’s energy needs. It will take years for better and cleaner energy sources to displace the oil and gas that fuel the nation’s quarter of a billion vehicles, provide about a third of its electricity, and heat homes and commercial buildings.

Giving up fracking in the belief that solar and wind can easily take over is like shooting yourself in the foot because you believe you can fly. A carbon tax would make renewables more competitive with fossil fuels. But it’s so much easier to say, “No fracking.”

The idea that fracking is too dangerous ignores science and the experience of tens of thousands of fracked wells. A landmark Environmental Protection Agency study last year found some cases of groundwater contamination from fracking, but no evidence of widespread problems — proof that fracking can be done safely. Fracked or not, any oil or gas well can leak contaminants into groundwater if the well is handled poorly, but safe drilling methods have been widely understood and used for decades.

What about methane leaks from gas wells, a potentially significant greenhouse gas problem that can offset natural gas’ advantage over coal? Careful regulation and tight connections will minimize leaks, many of which come from an identifiable subset of rogue operations.

As with any energy production, fracking comes with cost and inconvenience. Drilling booms in parts of the country unused to the associated noise, smells and traffic can rattle homeowners, as can minor earthquakes triggered by re-injection of wastewater. Just because drillers can site a well right next to a property line doesn’t mean authorities should let them do that.

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