There is perhaps no industrial technique that has brought more prosperity to the United Sates in recent years than the use of hydraulic fracturing. A decade ago the country was importing a net of 13 million barrels per day of oil and products. Today that number is about 5 million barrels per day and will continue to decline should the American shale oil industry continue to surge in productive capacity. Priced at $60 per barrel in 2006 vs $30 per barrel in 2016, this has created a decrease of $87.6 billion to the US trade deficit; today more American petrodollars are staying in the country to enrich ordinary Americans rather than flowing to wealthy oil exporters with human rights records that range from questionable to atrocious.
The positive effect for the American family caused by the oil and gas boom are unequivocal. In 2008, the specter of inflation began to make itself felt at the pump and across the US economy. Rising costs for gasoline, a highly demanded fuel for the vast motoring public, became a regular national news story. Gasoline stood in as the weakening dollar’s favorite scapegoat as prices for food and goods across the economy soared. Rising home equity values were the silver lining of an otherwise challenging work experience for the middle class, until it all came crashing down. The collapse of Lehman et al and sinking home values marked what is known as the Great Recession where the wealthy lost money, the middle class lost their jobs, and the working class lost their homes. In 2009 and 2010, as job losses continued to mount, places like North Dakota and Texas were booming beacons of economic vibrancy beckoning hundreds of thousands of desperate workers in a darkening nation. Foreign states that export large volumes of oil have long carried the resource curse, where the wealth from petrodollars fueled corruption and authoritarian state power without enriching the ordinary citizens and most vulnerable members of society, conversely, American states turned oil production into the sole source of opportunity for hungry workers feeding their families.
As oil and gas grew on the back of vibrant technological innovations including hydraulic fracturing, opposing this technology itself became cause célèbre for ‘progressives’ claiming to be fighting for the moral good. In the name of fighting economic iniquity, water pollution, and climate change, a rising chorus called on society to “ban fracking [sic]” without regard to any negative consequences of such a ban. It can clearly be shown that not only would a blanket ban on hydraulic fracturing not help any of the stated goals, but it would in fact cause disproportionate harm to the most vulnerable members of society; to fight against hydraulic fracturing is to fight to create social injustice.
The domestic oil and gas industry provides incredibly valuable opportunities to many people who would not have had any other chances to succeed. Consider the chances of:
A former drug dealer and reformed felon.
A Mexican immigrant who lost his foot from cartel torture.
A young man escaping a childhood of violence and incest.
A penniless young woman with a penchant for science and technology.
A high school dropout who grew up in Compton.
A nonreligious Kurdish woman who grew up in Syria.
During my own work in the petroleum industry, I have met all of these good people. According to popular mythology, however, these people should have experienced an inescapable state of poverty, discrimination, underachievement, violence, and recidivism. These are people who are expected to endure injustices due to their station in life; racism, sexism, xenophobia, and violence continue to destroy families even in today’s most progressive societies. These individuals, however, were not giving their blood and tears to some senseless state of victimhood–these people had all given sweat and toil to the American oil industry instead. They were accepted with open arms and live comfortable lives with 6-figure incomes and healthy relationships. None of them have failed to reach their full potential as human beings. Yet, should the opportunity to enter oil and gas not have been present then the lives they experienced would have borne injustices too terrible to detail.
Those who carry hatred towards the oil industry would unleash a torrent of injustice on millions of marginalized lives should those activists ever succeed in their goal to ban hydraulic fracturing. The workers who have decided to make a better life for themselves in oil and gas are an admittedly small section of society, but the total benefits of lower energy costs are distributed to every other person according to their need.
Many have pointed out the seeming hypocrisy when environmental activists use petroleum-based products to protest the production of fossil fuels. The activists, however, claim that in a world created by oil, societal forces–such as economies of scale and political red tape–hinder the possibility of reasonable alternatives. To a certain extent, they are correct that the success of petroleum can disincentivize the use of inferior alternatives but make no mistake that the energy provided by blended liquid alkanes will remain superior to any alternative provided. Let us here grant these activists enough goodwill that in their idealism they should receive some penance for their use of dirty fossil fuels. Well-compensated activists will be able to purchase these deplorable fossil fuels at any price. Whether society is given an enormous abundance of oil or a severe shortage, these idealists will continue to use fossil fuels as needed in order to try to stymie the further production of those fuels. In their hope that their imposed impediments will force the cessation of some production, they imply that there must be a reduction of consumption equal to that decrease in production. The marginal decrease in consumption will by necessity come from the least affluent members of society. Price increases caused by production decreases will make consumption more difficult for the working poor in the West and will prevent developing nations from importing the petroleum they need to industrialize. Progressive activists, in their zeal to destroy the oil industry, are in actuality advocating for global poverty and misery for all save an elite and wealthy few.
Perhaps human misery can be justified in the philosophy of the environmental activist if it is assumed that the well-being of the environment is more important than the well-being of people. For this position to bear fruit there must be at least some environmental harm shown to balance the abundance of human prosperity brought about from the use of hydraulic fracturing.
Earthquakes: The process of hydraulic fracturing does self-create micro-seismic events, but not earthquakes. When wastewater injection wells are situated near enough to fault lines then seismic activity can be induced. This phenomenon exists outside of the oilfields and has been manageable for decades.
Methane: Most atmospheric methane is not released by the petroleum industry. The question to ask long term (geologically) with regards to volcanic outgassing from continental subduction is: doesn’t the petroleum industry prevent methane releases?
CO2: Carbon dioxide as described in Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius’ theory of the greenhouse effect is able to trap heat in the earth at trace amounts. The theory posits that the largest marginal warming comes from the lowest CO2 concentrations and marginal warming decreases as concentrations decrease. Competing scientist, Anders Ångström, disagreed, claiming that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in the 19th century had become heat saturated and would not create marginal warming with incremental concentration. Regardless of which model you accept, the moral burden for any CO2-if any-must be placed squarely on the earliest and most effective emitters, not the latest and least effective.
These environmental causes are, at worst, reasonably mitigable concerns. Nothing raised in objection to hydraulic fracturing comes close to the benefit provided from this resource technology. Furthermore, evidence shows that fracturing is a cleaner and cheaper alternative to dirtier forms of energy used.
Among the progressive activists we find a socially mobile core that is well funded and strictly targeted. These activists, however, do not promote broader economic welfare while trying to take down workers in the oil and gas industry. Social justice for marginalized individuals is not achieved by removing them from the jobs they love. Nor should deindustrialization be confused for genuine environmental concern. If you take the stated goals of anti-frac activists, take their hatred of the oil industry, and then strip away their misguided and unrealistic motivations, then all that is left is hatred.