In the past few years, the use of the technology of hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and natural gas has dominated national energy policy discussions. Much of the discourse has been fraught with fear, misunderstanding and, in some cases, misinformation. However, in some cases, dispute is slowly being replaced by reasoned debate, acceptance and increasingly responsible regulation and use of this technology.
The reason for the change of tone is rather simple, the increased use of this technology has allowed our nation to produce tremendous amounts of natural gas that is cleaning our environment and reinvigorating our communities and our national economy. At the same time, as more individuals gain experience with the process they are seeing that the worst case scenario's outlined by the most polarizing voices in this discussion have largely failed to materialize.
Of course as with any political discussion, some groups will continue to advance discussion points that fit their view or brings more donations to their particular cause. However as more credible voices and scientific data are unveiled, it's becoming easier to understand that the benefits of this technology far are significant and that the choice that is currently being offered to the public - economic development vs. maintaining a healthy environment - is a false one.
Take for example the following:
Under President Obama's Climate Action Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has for the past three years been closely monitoring greenhouse gas emissions from the nation's power plants, which account for 40 percent of the nation's carbon emissions. Just last week, EPA released its latest data which showed that heat trapping pollutants emitted by the nation's power plants have decreased by 10 percent due to the increasing utilization of natural gas. Moreover, this data point is just one statistic in a much larger trend. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency the United States is leading all developed nations in reducing our carbon footprint since 2006.
Of course, these reductions would be diminished if greenhouse gas emissions were growing in the nation's oil and natural gas fields. However, according to EPA estimates the exact opposite of this is occurring. Earlier this year, EPA found that tighter pollution controls has resulted in an annual decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, or more than 850 million metric tons overall. However, it is important to keep in mind that natural gas production has surged by nearly 40 percent over the same time.
As increasing natural gas utilization is lowering carbon emissions, it is also breathing life into our struggling national economy. Take for example that in 2011 the oil and natural gas industry provided $545 billion to the U.S. economy in the form of capital expenditures, wages and dividend payments. This activity supported nine percent of all new jobs that year, according to the World Economic Forum.
But what does that mean exactly? For many American's in our nation's most rural and impoverished communities it means increased income and an opportunity at upward economic advancement. In a review conducted earlier this year, USA TODAYfound that increased oil and gas development grew personal income in small towns across the U.S. by 3.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the New York Timesnoted that western North Dakota, which overlies the Bakken Shale, leads the nation in upward income mobility. At the same time, affordable natural gas supplied by shale resource production has drawn 91 new manufacturing projects to the United States, representing $70 billion in potential investment and up to three million jobs.
Taken together, increased natural gas production is creating benefits that are improving the lives of American's of all backgrounds. For this reason, the practice has gained strong bi-partisan support. In fact, influential Democrats like California Governor Jerry Brown, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper have all made responsible shale development a key part of their governing agenda.
At the same time, due in part to these benefits, some of the technologies most vocal critics are now supporting the process and working with the natural gas industry. This was the focus of a recent Associated Press article which found that activists, and in some cases governors, who previously advocated for moratoriums are now working with the natural gas industry and are speaking about the environmental benefits of natural gas. In the words of one activist, "Tunnel vision isn't good. Realism is good."
It is important to understand that every energy source has an impact on the environment and, of course, natural gas is no exception. However, it is increasingly clear that our nation's shale revolution is improving our environment while bolstering our economy. With this in mind, we should avoid ideological talking points and continue to improve natural gas production while advancing its continued use in conjunction with an "all-of-the-above" energy portfolio.
Andrew Browning is a policy advisor for the Consumer Energy Alliance, a 501(c)4 organization whose funding members include energy consumers and producers including oil and gas companies.