Fracking ban could have unintended consequence of boosting coal

A big environmental talking point this election season is a call to ban fracking. The argument is supported by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). This week, a group of Hollywood stars, political activists and 500 grassroots groups sent a letter to the United Nations asking the General Assembly to endorse a global ban on fracking. In some political circles, activists believe that decreased fracking would reduce carbon emissions. Those activists are actually wrong.

Fracking produces natural gas, and when we use more natural gas we decrease our use of coal to produce electricity. We are in the midst of a natural gas boom, in large part because it is produced as a byproduct of fracking for oil. The natural gas produced through fracking has become abundant, cheap and a more environmentally friendly replacement for coal.  

In 2016, more than 31 percent of electricity in the United States was produced by burning coal in power plants. Natural gas is the best option to replace coal power generation quickly and transition to cleaner emissions. The best way to put pressure on utilities to make that transition is to keep pushing the price of natural gas lower so that coal cannot compete.

According to a new report from IHS Markit, natural gas prices in the United States could fall to an average of $2 or less per thousand cubic feet next year. This incredibly low price for natural gas is being driven by an increase in associated gas, or gas that is produced and captured from oil wells. We have also seen an increase in pipelines built in fracking regions to transport that natural gas. Without the pipelines, the producers have to flare the natural gas, meaning they burn it off at the well. This is both wasteful and bad for the environment. 

The United States is producing so much natural gas that we can even afford to export it to other countries while keeping prices low for utilities at home. Liquifying and transporting natural gas abroad is now a growing business for the United States with new liquefaction. America’s LNG export capacity is expected to reach over 10 billion cubic feet per day in 2020, which is almost double the export capacity in 2018. There’s an obvious economic benefit to selling our abundant and inexpensive natural gas to the world, but there are also environmental and geopolitical benefits. 

The international community is even more dependent on coal than the United States. Globally, coal accounted for more than 38 percent of total electricity generation in 2016. Our cost-efficient natural gas, largely a byproduct of our fracking revolution, is an enticing alternative, particularly to nations like China and India, which burn a lot of coal. Air pollution is noticed locally, but carbon emissions are a global problem. We must consider whatever we can do at home to help our global neighbors reduce emissions and do so at a low cost.

Moreover, our great supply of natural gas is a boon for our geopolitical leverage. We saw in the Middle East last week how energy production and distribution plays into geopolitics. With so much natural gas, we can work to counteract Russian leverage in Europe, we can supply allies and we can free ourselves of some unnecessary foreign entanglements. The huge volume of natural gas that we pump out of the ground, coupled with our world-leading oil production, means our worries about energy shortages are alleviated.

Fracking is a popular political target today, but targeting fracking is also irresponsible. It is about more than just cheap gasoline. It is about cleaner air right now, about a healthy domestic economy and about controlling our own geopolitical strategies. 

Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center as well as the president of Transversal Consulting, a global energy and geopolitics consultancy. She is the author of “Saudi, Inc.,” a history of Aramco and how the Saudi royal family controls this multi-trillion dollar enterprise.

Tags Bernie Sanders Coal Elizabeth Warren Ellen R. Wald emissions Energy Fossil fuels fracking

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