Two recent events have cast some doubt about the seemingly bright future of fracking in northeastern Pennsylvania and in other parts of the country. The first has to do with a few voter-driven efforts to eliminate fracking. The second is related to the recent plunge in energy prices.
While voters and many municipal governments have decided to restrict fracking, few have banned it all together. That is why shock waves ruminated through those involved in the fracking process when 59 percent of voters in Denton, Texas — a state that owes much of its economic success to petroleum — voted to ban hydraulic fracturing all together.
During the campaign to ban fracking in Denton, claims about and the potential for groundwater contamination were taken more seriously because, unlike northeastern Pennsylvania, there are many gas wells right within Denton’s relatively small city limit — in fact there are 270 of them. Some wells were drilled within a football toss of North Texas’ football field. Is this any way to treat “Mean Joe” Greene’s alma mater?
Many say yes. Property owners in Denton, those with even relatively small plots of land on top of the rich Barnett Shale, are hardly taking the ban lightly. For many, it was a major, if not sole, source of income. These property owners are not the only ones undone by the ban. Texas Railroad Commission Chairwoman Christi Craddick told the Dallas Morning News that she would continue to issue permits in Denton. The commission, which regulates drilling in Texas, is also seeking an injunction against the ban.
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The discussions about bans on fracking continue in Denton and elsewhere as energy prices have dropped by more than 30 percent since summer. These price declines make it far less desirable for producers to undertake relatively expensive horizontal drilling and fracking procedures.
Falling prices are being driven by recent increases in oil and gas supplies. Throughout the later part of the 20th century, the 12-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries controlled oil and gas output and, therefore, also prices. Americans found themselves at the mercy of the OPEC cartel. Today, the combination of gas and oil discoveries in the U.S. and Canada, coupled with weak economic growth in many corners of the world, has driven prices down substantially.
Of course, there are winners and losers in this price decline. Chief among the winners are American consumers, who now have more to spend on other goods and services. This in turn stimulates consumer spending and has helped our nation’s recovery from the Great Recession.
And, yes, the oil companies and exploration firms are the losers, as many had based their investment decisions on higher gas and oil prices and will now cut back on exploration and employees. There are other losers, as well. Some of the biggest are Russia, Iran and even the Islamic State, which have financed much of their expansionist actions on oil sales and taxes. Americans do not want to be beholden to these countries and rogue states. When polled, our fellow countrymen and women seem to understand the importance of a plentiful energy supply.
There are many examples of Americans’ desire to have adequate supplies of petroleum. The most recent is exhibited in a USA Today poll that outlines how 60 percent of Americans favor construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, compared to 25 percent being against it. The remainder either didn’t know or refused to answer.
Vagaries in the marketplace are inevitable. Today, we enjoy relatively cheap energy because of North America’s new and robust ability to produce gas and oil. As a result, we have seen positive results in job growth. In the longer run, oil and gas supplies will remain a scarce commodity. In a volatile world, our energy supply picture can change almost overnight and drastically affect our country’s economic picture. Those who seek to ban or restrict fracking are hard pressed to come up with technically and economically realistic alternatives that meet our energy needs.
The key to a stable energy picture is not to limit supply by placing artificial constraints on production, like the fracking ban in Denton and those being debated in New York State. Rather, communities and states should focus on policies that assure horizontal drilling and fracking is undertaken by reputable firms with adequate oversight by well-balanced regulatory authorities. If local ordinances to ban fracking are adopted widely, they can permanently interrupt the positive energy picture we currently enjoy — and once again make us beholden to countries and rogue movements who would do us harm.