Did you happen to catch Promised Land, the film with Matt Damon, Frances McDormand and John Krasinski? Judging by the film’s paltry revenues and lone reference in Misix's Movie Quality Index, I’m guessing you passed on it. Admittedly, this blogger missed it as well, but still has good intentions to see the film. Why? Well, besides the star-studded cast, the screenplay grapples with the intriguing topic of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the societal tensions surrounding it.
First off, an explanation of fracking is in order. Fracking is a modified mining process that allows hard-to-get oil and natural gas embedded in layers of shale rock miles below the Earth’s surface to be extracted. The multi-step process begins by drilling an L-shaped borehole thousands of feet underground to reach the levels of shale rock. Concrete and steel are then used to reinforce and seal the borehole. Next, shockwaves from conductors and millions of gallons of water, sand and chemical mixture are used to fracture the shale rock in order to release the natural gas and oil. Extraction then occurs until the well runs dry, wherein the process begins anew. This cycle is repeated until the well can no longer be fracked to produce more fuels.
Fracking has proven to be highly efficient and successful. According to the New York Times, in 2011, the U.S. imported 45% of the liquid fuels it used, down from 60% in 2005, largely because of increased fossil fuel production resulting from fracking. Proliferation of fracking is expected to continue, boosting domestic fossil fuel supply and applying downward pressure on prices of natural gas, oil, and gasoline. The Energy Department estimates domestic oil production could increase over 20% to 7 million barrels a day by 2020, and more liberal estimates from The International Energy Agency predict the United States will overtake Russia as the leading producer of natural gas by 2015, outpace Saudi Arabia in oil production by 2017, will be a net exporter of oil by 2030 and energy “self-sufficient” in about two decades.
Such projections have profound effects on the economy, foreign policy and national security. Cheap energy means lower input costs for firms, which may drive profitability, job creation and a resurgent economy. Much like the economic boom of the 1990s, the U.S. economy could experience economic expansion partially as a result of inexpensive energy. Additionally, with energy security, U.S. foreign policy could abstain from geopolitical gamesmanship. Foreign policy could be direct, transparent and less involved, as energy needs are eliminated from political decision making. National security would benefit as a result of the reduced U.S. foreign footprint.
However, fracking does not come without costs. Fracking has been contested by many environmental groups as detrimental to local water, air, climate, communities and public health. The main contention is that the chemicals used during the fracking process can leach into aquifers, introducing carcinogens and pollutants into local water supplies. Environmental coalitions also cite negative externalities associated with fracking – air pollution, decreased land values, sustainability issues, and toxic waste – as reasons to oppose the process. Additionally, nations such as France and Bulgaria have already banned fracking, supporting environmentalists’ claims. Yet oil companies contend that the mining process is safe and water aquifers are protected from the pressurized water, sand, and chemical mixtures by steel and concrete barriers. The competing claims of environmentalists and industry proponents are currently being researched by the EPA, with an expected ruling due in 2014.
Forthcoming years will likely bring escalation of the fracking debate. Economic and environmental tradeoffs will be weighed, studied, researched and quantified by proponents and opponents. But fracking does not need to be dualistic. There are clear economic and political benefits to achieving energy independence, just as there are potential significant costs inherent to the mining process. In the coming years, hopefully we can find a middle path, allowing the U.S. to reap the rewards of fracking while minimizing costs.