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OP-ED: Why fracking is a big issue

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson

In my previous column, I described the “paradox of prosperity”—the strange tendency of many people who have benefited from economic advances to denounce and vilify the source of their prosperity, a sort of “bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you” phenomenon.

One example of this syndrome is the perplexing (some would say “perverse”) antipathy that many Americans have toward fossil fuels, despite fossil fuels having been the key driver of our country’s rapid economic development over the past 160 years. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, oil provided a reliable, abundant source of energy that propelled our country’s emergence as the wealthiest nation in the world. Today, thanks to the technological breakthrough of “fracking” (i.e., using water, sand, and high pressure to fracture subterranean rock formations, thereby releasing huge quantities of natural gas so that they can be brought to the surface for human use), new generations of Americans can once again achieve unprecedented levels of affluence and prosperity from plentiful inexpensive energy.

Fracking, however, has become one of the hot-button issues in this year’s presidential campaign, particularly here in western Pennsylvania. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has a long track record of advocating a phasing out of fossil fuels sooner rather than later. The 26,000 Pennsylvanians currently employed in using fracking to extract huge quantities of natural gas from the massive Marcellus shale formation that lies underground are not eager to lose their jobs under a Biden administration that is determined to “transition” away from natural gas. In this short piece, I will not wade into the political debate, but I do want to clarify some basic economic facts about the fracking industry. I share these as an economist who has long lived in western Pennsylvania and taught and lectured on energy.

The enormous boost that cheap natural gas gives to the American economy is reason enough to continue with fracking, but there are also important geopolitical, health, and environmental benefits to natural gas.

Geopolitically, fracking has made the United States energy independent. This reduces the perceived need to deploy military forces to far-off unstable lands to ensure that their oil continues to flow. Our growing ability to export liquified natural gas to western Europe reduces the leverage that Vladimir Putin has had due to European dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

In terms of human health and environmental quality, natural gas is far safer for workers to extract than coal, and burning it causes much less pollution than coal. Replacing coal with natural gas also has resulted in the United States achieving the largest reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in any advanced economy. This is rather ironic considering that many critics still chastise the United States for not signing the Paris Accord, when, in fact, we are doing more to reduce CO2 emissions than the countries that did sign the accord.

As fracking supplies us with more and more natural gas—keeping the costs of heating our homes and factories under control—human ingenuity is finding additional uses for the components of natural gas that aren’t consumed as fuel. This is a repeat of the economic conservation practiced by John D. Rockefeller with Standard Oil a century ago: Instead of discarding residue, why not find practical uses for it? Rockefeller’s scientists and their successors developed over 6,000 useful products from crude petroleum (everything from ball-point pens to important pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, perfumes and lipstick, waxes, solvents, paints, etc.). The most outstanding example of finding valuable uses for the non-methane components of natural gas (methane being what we heat our houses with) is the multi-billion dollar “cracking” plant that Shell Oil Corporation has built about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. This plant separates (“cracks” in industry lingo) ethane out of the natural gas and converts it into plastic.

Obviously, that massive cracking plant is providing additional high-paying jobs for skilled workers in western Pennsylvania. Imagine the consequences of shutting it down. A policy of depriving Americans of a supply of cheap, clean fuel, and a stream of valuable byproducts of that fuel, would be economically damaging to all Americans. It would also constitute a direct threat to the livelihood of tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians.

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a retired adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.