During the midst of the 2020 election, Americans heard a common phrase in the presidential debates and other online forums: will Joe Biden ban fracking? Many might ask “what is fracking?” It is the process of extracting natural gas or oil from shale and other forms of rock by blasting water, chemicals, and sand at pressures high enough to crack the rock to allow the gas and oil to flow to the surface. Because fracking makes it easier to obtain hard to reach sources of oil and gas, it has transformed the energy industry in the US. The technology has been popular in many states, including in Pennsylvania, a swing state in Presidential elections with one of the most electoral votes.
Apart from simply being a fossil fuel extraction technology, fracking has been extremely controversial because of its many negative environmental impacts. Fracking contributes to groundwater contamination, uses large amounts of water, causes earthquakes due to the pressure on the rock formation, and allows greenhouse gases to escape into the atmosphere. Fracking has also raised serious public health concern — fracking is linked to cancer, respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects, and premature mortality, especially for industry workers who are exposed on-site.
In spite of such environmental and health concerns, President-elect Joe Biden has promised not ban fracking, mostly because fracking makes up a large portion of the energy industry and is a source of jobs and economic prosperity in states where thousands of people work in the industry. Instead, the President-elect’s plan is to stop issuing new fracking permits on federal land, while allowing fracking to continue on private lands.
The plan is an effort to please people on both sides of the aisle — no new fracking on public lands to appease those who are concerned about the environmental impact of fracking, while making a concession to states and industry by continuing to allow fracking on private lands to be regulated by states. Yet, it is also unclear how much this compromise will accomplish for the environment. In states such as Pennsylvania, allowing fracking to continue on private land will have little effect on curbing this practice since most fracking there occurs on private land. In fact, oil and gas production utilizing fracking technology on federally owned land constitutes less than 10% of the US total. Thus, even though the Biden’s plan constitutes an important compromise and valuable first step in addressing the problems associated with this controversial gas extraction technology, it is not likely to make a significant difference in terms of a nationwide positive impact. It remains critical for strict regulations and permit requirements to be imposed on ongoing and future fracking activities once the Biden Administration begins its work, regardless of whether they occur on private or public lands. Otherwise, this initial policy compromise is unlikely to accomplish much for the environment and will be little more than political cover.