Last week’s move by the Obama administration to regulate “fracking” federally is cheap politics – but in a good way. Instead of obstructing the energy revolution to pander to his base, U.S. President Barack Obama merely pretends to. Politicians can do worse and in Canada often have.
Like the president’s symbolic opposition to Keystone XL – which does not affect America’s enormous existing pipeline network, its energy industry or even its ability to use Canadian oil sands bitumen – his new federal fracking regulations only affect the small fraction of wells on federal and Indian lands. The vast majority on private and state-owned property remain under state rules.
New U.S. fracking rules get hostile reception from Canadian companies
CALGARY – Just two hours after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration introduced new regulations for companies fracking for oil and gas on federal lands, an industry association representing a number of Canadian energy companies filed a lawsuit in Wyoming demanding the government drop the new rules.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a conference call Friday morning that existing hydraulic fracturing regulations “have not kept pace” with changes in the American oil industry, in which fracking is now used to produce oil and gas from 90% of new wells.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a decades-old process of injecting oil or gas wells with pressurized water, sand or other gritty material, and various chemicals to lubricate and add viscosity, opening cracks in the rock deep underground and releasing the oil and gas trapped within.
In the last 30 years “unconventional” fracking has gone deeper, drilled horizontally as well as vertically and used newer chemicals. And it has turned the United States, suddenly and surprisingly, into the world’s largest producer of liquid petroleum and natural gas – and the world’s largest exporter of petroleum products, where once it was the world’s largest importer. This energy boom is not just good for America’s economy. At least since the 1973 OPEC oil embargo the security of the Western world has clearly been imperilled by its dependence on energy imports from unstable and frequently hostile parts of the world.
This point has been driven home again in the confrontation with Putin’s Russia over Ukraine. Yet Germany, which gets 40% of its natural gas imports, more than a third of its oil imports and a quarter of its coal imports from Russia, has recently banned unconventional fracking, though it has allowed conventional fracking since 1975.
The bad guys get the geopolitics, even if our politicians don’t. It is well known to Western intelligence that Russia has been covertly subsidizing European anti-fracking movements, even as it makes abundant use of the technique itself. Saudi Arabia, likewise, has been keeping oil prices low partly in hopes of stopping fracking. But the future lies with safe, secure energy supplies.
Opponents portray fracking as some new, untested technology with horrifying side effects from flaming water to earthquakes. Actually it was first tested in 1947, commercialized in 1950 and has been used safely more than 2.5 million times worldwide since. “Massive” or “high-volume” fracking has been in use since 1968, while unconventional fracking has been around since the late 1980s. There is no evidence that it is inherently dangerous, whatever tap-on-fire videos may be posted online from places known for ground-water methane long before fracking.
Nevertheless, there are always potential safety hazards, as there are with any industrial activity, and like any other activity these can be addressed through sensible environmental regulation. Yet too many politicians have opted for the green symbolism of fracking bans or moratoriums, including provincial governments in Quebec and Atlantic Canada who, presented with the opportunity to escape decades of economic and demographic decline, have instead crumpled before fear-driven, pseudo-scientific pressure politics. So much for “evidence-based decision making.”
Fracking will not turn the moon to blood. But it will help declaw Putin’s Russia, Chavista Venezuela and Islamist theocracies, while keeping democracies’ citizens warm, dry and employed. If politicians must pander around it, let them pander like Obama: safely, symbolically and ineffectually.