Fretting frackers restrain economic opportunities
By Christopher Swann
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Critics of hydraulic fracturing contend its hazards have been downplayed and the benefits exaggerated. A new U.S. report suggests just the opposite. Yet until safety concerns are tackled, as with a proposed cleanup fund in New York, the potential of this energy source won’t be fully realized.
Shale gas producers using the fracking process in just a few years have made nearly as many enemies as it took oil companies generations to acquire. This was almost inevitable given the nature of the drilling. While much oil exploration now takes place miles off coastlines far from public view, frackers have intruded on populated land regions.
Other vested interests have been challenged, too. Discovered reserves have sent gas prices tumbling, making greener solar and wind energy less economically viable by comparison. It’s no wonder some detractors have been tempted to overstate the risks.
The latest report from a panel of experts assembled by the Department of Energy lays out a sensible strategy for mitigating genuine environmental worries and allaying public fears. While the threat that fracking itself could contaminate ground water is “remote,” more care needs to be taken disposing of fluids used in the process.
Measuring water quality before drilling, as recommended by the agency’s publication, might prevent fracking from being blamed for pre-existing problems. And proposals unveiled in the Empire State this week to force gas drillers to contribute to an accident cleanup fund, as oil drillers do, might also help win over a nervous citizenry.
Not nearly enough has been done along these lines to set the risks against the vast potential gains. Already fracking has created some 200,000 jobs, according to the DOE’s estimate, which seems conservative according to some industry experts. It also has helped to lower electricity prices and the nation’s trade balance.
An average Pennsylvania well generates about $4 million in economic gains, against typical environmental costs of $14,000, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found. The same report suggested lifting a drilling ban in New York could yield $1.4 billion a year in tax revenue.
The temptation of such lucre in hardened economic times should not blind policymakers to genuine dangers from fracking. But with proper oversight, these threats nevertheless look manageable.