Fracking waters

The presidential contest that theoretically ends today has focused intensely on Pennsylvania, a swing state with a prize of 20 electoral votes.

The focus owes in part to a difference over a natural gas mining method that uses pressurized chemical-infused water to loosen up petroleum deposits deep in the ground.

Hydraulic fracturing – fracking for short – has helped bring about energy-independence to the nation and riches to Pennsylvania (the second-biggest gas-mining state after Texas) where fracking employment and wages are high and locally-paid royalties are meaningful.

But the extraction method has also raised wide-ranging environmental concerns. In 2016 the EPA declared that fracking posed a threat to water supplies. Among other things, spills of fracking wastewater have been found to contaminate creeks and groundwater in Pennsylvania.

So, there are differences between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on fracking. Does that mean that the election will decide whether fracking gets banned?

Beyond the rhetoric, the simple answer is “No.”  

The federal government can’t easily or legally prohibit a mining practice that occurs primarily on private land, regardless of environmental impact; further, Biden, apparently sensing how hard it would be to renegotiate existing leases on federal property, says that he’d bar fracking only on new federal leases. 

Bottom line: Fracking water, with all its suspected carcinogens and distillates, will continue to be shot into the ground in the cause of cheap energy that’s measurably better than coal.

I believe that the smart course is not to spend time and resources trying to ban fracking but rather work out ways to regulate it as the Obama administration began trying to do in 2015. For example: set rules on where fracking wastewater winds up, be more attentive to spills, limit fracking near wetlands, and so on.  In fact, such steps might actually boost economic activity, not constrain it, by stimulating the development of wastewater-cleansing technology.

I agree with those who see a well-regulated fracking industry as a bridge to a future not far from now when renewable energy is the standard. In the interim, nature generally – and water in particular – are at risk; the challenge is to reduce that risk as best we can.

For that reason, the outcome of the Nov. 3 election will be plenty important, putting aside the idea of banning this gas-extraction method.

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