Can the U.S. really go frack-free? Sanders, Clinton take aim at hydraulic fracturing

Repost from the San Diego Union-Tribune

Can the U.S. really go frack-free? Sanders, Clinton take aim at hydraulic fracturing

By Rob Nikolewski, March 19, 2016 5 p.m. 
Workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation in western Colorado. Fracking came up in a recent debate between Democratic Party presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation in western Colorado. Fracking came up in a recent debate between Democratic Party presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. — Associated Press

Earlier this month, both candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for president took shots at “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing, the process that extracts oil and natural gas by using high-pressure liquids to break through shale rock formations.

In a March 6 debate, Hillary Clinton said, “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.”

“My answer is a lot shorter,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, said. “I do not support fracking.”

All three Republican candidates for president support hydraulic fracturing.

The presidential race amplifies a debate that’s more complex than the typical struggle between industry and the environment.

On a warming planet, does fracking keep the nation’s energy mix chained to fossil fuels and further delay a future where clean energy sources dominate? Critics say it does.

However, the fracking boom also is largely responsible for utilities’ accelerating shift from coal-fired power plants to cleaner-burning natural gas generators. Meanwhile, there’s fierce debate about potential threats to ground water and methane leaking into the atmosphere.

Less controversial is the energy industry’s economic and geopolitical importance. In less than 10 years, hydraulic fracturing – along with the technology of horizontal drilling – has dramatically increased oil and gas production, making the United States an energy power that has rivaled, and by some measures surpassed, countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia.

A ban on fracking “would be great for for the Middle East and terrible for the U.S.,” said Sabrina Demayo Lockhart, communications director for the California Independent Petroleum Association. “Hydraulic fracturing has given the U.S. an affordable, reliable energy resource.”

But Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, said a growing renewable energy market makes the prospect of going frack-free seem not so far-fetched.

“If someone said we’re not there yet, I’d say the science seems to indicate and reports indicate that we are there,” Jacobson said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated on Tuesday that production from hydraulically fractured wells made up about half of total U.S. crude oil production.

Renewable energy may be growing but the same agency last year projected that 62 percent of U.S. energy consumption will come from a combination of oil and natural gas in 2040.

And while the Obama administration has sought stricter regulations for fracking on federal lands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year released a study saying it did not find evidence that fracking “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has promoted an “all of the above” energy program that includes natural gas as a bridge fuel to help the U.S. reduce its reliance on coal and boost clean energy sources.

“If the wells are drilled and treated appropriately, we know how to do that part of it,” said DOE undersecretary Franklin Orr, who was in San Diego earlier this week, talking to clean energy business leaders.

“If the formation is a deep one and the hydraulic fracturing can be kept in the zone where it’s supposed to be, I don’t think there’s any question that it can be done in a way that it can be operated safely and do so in the long term,” Orr said.

But a number of environmental groups insist taking fracking off the table is a realistic, near-term scenario.

“We couldn’t do it tomorrow but by 2030, 2040, 2050 we could be meeting our energy needs, and we could be moving our transportation system off of fossil fuels,” Jacobson said in a telephone interview from his office in Sacramento. “It’s certainly possible. The question is, do we have the political will to get it done?”

Jacobson points to Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal to get California to derive 50 percent of all its electric power from clean energy sources by 2030, just 14 years from now.

“California’s got (nearly) 40 million people,” Jacobson said. By 2030 “that’s going to be like 20 million people getting 100 percent of their electricity from clean energy sources … So all we need is for the other states to adopt programs that are similar to California’s and we can easily get there.”

But others dismissed the comments by Sanders and Clinton.

“I’m hoping that’s just political, rhetorical arguments,” said Octávio Simões, president of the Sempra LNG & Midstream unit of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, which has made considerable investments in natural gas infrastructure in North America.

Calling the comments “irresponsible,” Simões said hydraulic fracturing has saved consumers money at the gas pump, reduced heating and cooling costs through low natural gas prices, and helped the U.S. reduce CO2 emissions.

“Ultimately, the customers are seeing the impact, and no politician likes to be tied to the impacts of one, higher carbon emissions, two, higher costs of energy and, three, more dependency on foreign oil and foreign gas,” Simões said. “Come on, it just doesn’t seem right.”

In theory, California’s Monterey Shale formation in the central San Joaquin Valley holds nearly 14 billion barrels of oil, making it the nation’s largest reserve. But 96 percent of its oil and gas isn’t recoverable using current technology, EIA analysts said in 2014, and the cratering price of oil have blunted efforts to improve its prospects.

According to the California Department of Conservation, hydraulic fracturing occurred in California 1,004 times between Jan. 1, 2014 through Sept. 30, 2015, almost exclusively in Kern County.

Polls indicate a majority of Californians want stricter rules or a moratorium on fracking.

Although the well responsible for the massive natural gas leak in Porter Ranch in Los Angeles that led to the displacement of residents of nearly 3,400 households was tapping an underground storage formation (and not fracked), the incident has fueled more complaints about natural gas production.

Two states have banned fracking — Sanders’ home state of Vermont, which has no natural gas or oil reserves, and New York, where Clinton served as a U.S. senator.

Brown has resisted calls from environmentalists to ban fracking, but regulations passed in 2013 require California producers to apply for permits, disclose what chemicals they use, notify neighbors before drilling and monitor ground water and air quality.

“The industry is essentially regulated on a state-by-state basis,” said Nicole Decker, equity sector analyst at UBS Wealth Management Research. “It’s not really left to the federal government.”

A president committed to getting rid of hydraulic fracturing would have considerable political hurdles to clear, including getting both houses of Congress, currently with Republican majorities, to agree to a ban.

However, the chief executive could make life difficult for the oil and gas industry by issuing executive orders and prompting the EPA to adopt stricter regulations.

Some have brought up concerns that an outright ban could, ironically, lead to the country using more coal.

Natural gas produces about 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal, and the conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas-fired facilities has been attributed to helping the nation reduce its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP.

“In the present legislative and regulatory environment, any severe curtailing of natural-gas fracking would just lead to a bounce back of coal, not an expansion of renewables,” said Ray Pierrehumbert, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, told the decidedly left-of-center magazine Mother Jones.

Fracking critics point to the technique’s association with leaks of methane, a gas that has an impact on climate change more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, according to the EPA.

It’s been estimated that 107,000 tons of methane leaked at Porter Ranch, the greenhouse gas equivalent of the output of 572,000 cars in a year.

A recent study suggested the EPA has not been properly calculating how much methane released during fracking affects the nation’s greenhouse-gas footprint.

Another paper presented to the Committee on Climate Change says fracking has produced such high emissions of methane that natural gas is worse for the environment than coal.

But last week, a study released by the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research attributed higher levels of methane in the atmosphere since 2007 to agricultural practices, not fossil fuel production.

“Our data indicate that the source of the increase was methane produced by bacteria, of which the most likely sources are natural, such as wetlands or agricultural, for example from rice paddies or livestock,” atmospheric scientist Hinrich Schaefer said in a NIWA news release.

Despite its critics, fracking has more than its share of supporters.

Combined with horizontal drilling technology, hydraulic fracturing has been attributed to an energy renaissance in North America that has swelled domestic production and made the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil.

For example, U.S. oil production in 2000 — before fracking was widely used — was about 5.8 million barrels a day. By 2015, it averaged 9.4 million barrels a day.

“I don’t see us taking that massive leap backwards and having the plug pulled, especially given that over the past several years the growth in the oil and gas industry (and) what is has done for our economy,” Decker of UBS said.

“I would certainly not support a doctrinaire, ‘no fracking, period’ (policy),” DOE undersecretary Orr said Monday.

But Jacobson of Environment California says time is on the side of fracking’s opponents.

“I was working on bills when they said California couldn’t get 20 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources like wind and solar and the lobbyists from the utilities said, ‘we can’t do it,’ ” Jacobson said. “We’ve always been told on the clean energy side we can’t do it and yet everyday we keep proving that we can do it.”