Epstein Examines Fracking Controversy

The Fracking Panacea?
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
June 8, 2011

A number of recent reports have indicated that new techniques of "fracking" are able by intense hydraulic pressures to unlock huge amounts of oil and gas reserves from once abandoned sites. Right now a land boom is taking place in the conspicuous locations of yesterday, such as the Permian Basin, in West Texas, the Eagle Ford region in Central Texas, and the Bakken in the Dakotas. The numbers are quite staggering. Production in the Bakken has jumped from virtually nothing a few years ago to 400,000 barrels a day today, with the prospects that better technology will push that total up to a million barrels a day by 2020. Similar gains are reported in both the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford. It is almost as if the laws of scarcity have been repealed. Daniel Yergin, a notable energy expert, puts the point in geopolitical terms: "This is like adding another Venezuela or Kuwait by 2020, except these tight oil fields are in the United States."

These sites have already been exposed to a great deal of environmental wear and tear, so sensible developments concentrated in these areas could well cause fewer environmental dislocations than fresh explorations undertaken in pristine areas, including sites located close to large population centers or fragile ecological systems, like the Gulf of Mexico. With oil prices again hovering above $100 per barrel, bringing these sites on line quickly could well reduce our dependence on both deep water drilling and Middle Eastern imports. Under some scenarios, the rapid displacement of old energy sources might even reduce pollution levels overall.

The proper response to these new developments, therefore, should be one of guarded optimism. Quite simply, new viable technologies improve the odds of having energy available at lower prices. As I have argued earlier on this site, these technological improvements should be especially welcome today in the face of the increased (if misguided) resistance to new nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s near meltdown in March, 2011—that plant, by the way, was first commissioned in 1971 and stood in desperate need of an upgrade. Nonetheless, public sentiment about improved nuclear energy often runs negative: think of Germany’s recent announcement that it will shut down, not upgrade, its current nuclear facilities.

Richard A. Epstein