Written By: Luyang Zhang
In the last weeks of a tumultuous pair of campaigns, a national debate exploded over an unlikely contender for the most contentious issue of the U.S. election: fracking. And while the election itself has come and gone, speculation about President-elect Joe Biden’s course of action regarding fracking remains in the public consciousness.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, utilizes highly pressurized fluid to remove natural gas and oil from fissures created in shale, a type of sedimentary rock. It’s a major reason the past decade has seen the U.S. land the highest production rates of petroleum and natural gas in the global market.
The practice of fracking began with Edward A. L. Roberts’ 1965 patent of an “exploding torpedo” that would be the predecessor for the modern fracking mechanism. The model was favored for its ability to exploit previously unproductive shale and gained traction amongst energy behemoths, including Chevron and ExxonMobil, both of whom remain heavily invested in fracking today.
Proponents of fracking argue that the practice has created a lucrative industry, driving a job market and lowering energy prices even during the economic dip from the pandemic. These individuals also believe that natural gas — the production of which has risen by 70% since 2005, in part due to fracking — is the next step to sustainable energy. In the past decade, an estimated reduction of 500 million tons of CO2 emissions worldwide has been attributed to switches from coal to natural gas energy.
Meanwhile, opponents have stated these carbon cuts won’t be enough to outweigh the detriment that fracking already has on the environment. In addition to the direct damage to the land from drilling fracking wells, studies show methane in natural gas traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide, which has sparked increased concern about global warming. The social implications of fracking have also been called into question; opponents cite the water contamination, declining air quality, and radioactivity associated with fracking sites to assert that fracking is unsustainable. Additionally, opponents argue any economic prosperity is part of a short-lived boom that will eventually end in high rates of unemployment and polluted, overexploited land where the shale has been depleted.
The fracking controversy is compounded in the political battleground state of Pennsylvania, whose swing state votes were critical in determining the outcome of the election. The state is among the most reliant on the fracking industry, as it sits over the bulk of the Marcellus Shale, a highly productive natural gas formation, and is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country, creating between 20,000 and 50,000 fracking industry jobs statewide.
Going forward, all eyes will be on the new President-elect to uplift the economy and maintain fracking-dependent livelihoods for blue-collar Americans in states like Pennsylvania while fulfilling his promises to speed up the movement toward renewable energy. This all comes as lowered prices and decreased demand for oil due to the pandemic have started to chip away at the income of even some of the nation’s largest oil companies.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, one thing is for sure: there will be changes happening in the fracking landscape soon — figuratively and literally.