Croix Ellison, Science Co-Editor
As the top oil-producing industry in the United States, hydraulic fracturing has prevailed through the American economy for more than a century. As the process has significantly altered the energy landscape, fracking (short for “hydraulic fracturing”) has also led to rising oil and natural gas production. This production has also led to cheaper oil and reduced reliance on imports or oil and gas from other countries. However, the nation’s heavy use of the natural gas produced from fracking also leads to more pressing environmental concerns.
Fracking is a process in which sand, water, and chemicals are injected directly into the ground at high pressure to crack open rocks and release the oil or gas trapped inside. The process is also considerably more expensive, and it only works when global oil is at much higher prices than it is now.
Fracking (technically) is not new science, despite how it is framed in public discussion. With a history tracing back to the 1860s, the modern-day fracking process we know now has prevailed since the 1990s. Additionally, the fracking process, as a result of being made from toxic pollutants such as oil and gas, is a significant contributor to the devastating consequences of climate change, which has led to drastic and dangerous disruptions in our daily lives: there is an increase in natural disasters that are not only destroying shorelines, lowering air quality or eating away at world economies, but they are disproportionately affecting lower-income communities across the globe. The impact on vulnerable Black, Brown, and Indigenous populations in the United States is a particularly prevalent problem.
What’s not discussed as widely is how the fracking process can go wrong. If this were to occur, it could lead to the contaminants from oil and gas wells leaking into streams and water supplies. Furthermore, fracking operations are industrializing (and destroying) both wild and rural landscapes and disproportionately putting agricultural and recreational economies at risk. Since the fracking boom hasn’t led to the type of environmental safeguards needed to regulate it heavily, restrict it or eliminate it (thanks to a very active and well-funded oil and gas industry that contributed nearly $100 million to candidates in the 2020 election cycle), the process could also lead to blighted landscapes and poison water.
Yet, since the beginning of the pandemic, one central question persists: Is the fracking industry collapsing because of the coronavirus? As a result of Covid-19, the world has seen many shifts in economy and livelihood. Due to a decrease in the usage of carbon powered machines, air pollution levels have seen significant drops – perhaps more so during the first months of the pandemic as U.S. cities instituted mandatory lockdowns, at least according to a University of Minnesota study. As a result, certain countries, like the United States, have seen some improvement of the environment’s air quality due to a decrease in the use of machines powered by oil and gas (cars, airplanes, boats, trains).
For example, fewer people are commuting all over the world. Therefore, commuting traffic levels are not as high as pre-pandemic; most local travel is confined to shopping at local grocery stores for essential items. Travel bans have restricted international flights. Canceled conferences, festivals, concerts, and other public events have diminished tourism. Additionally, airline ridership has slumped altogether, and in many cases, airports are near-empty (despite a sudden uptick in holiday travel starting in the Thanksgiving break). Interestingly enough, the nation’s air quality has improved while energy oil and gas production has begun to deteriorate during this pandemic.
The recent 2020 election debate over fracking between presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump gave the American public the impression that the fracking industry was somewhat strong. However, what was missed is that the fracking industry is, in fact, not doing so well. In the first month of official quarantine in the U.S., as declining oil prices had shocked the oil industry, fracking companies had already started to file for bankruptcy. During this pandemic, not even one out of 100 of the largest fracking operations can profit from such low oil prices.
Since oil prices have decreased to staggeringly record lows, that has become a big problem for fracking companies, as they require oil prices of at least $30 or higher to turn a profit. The industry as a whole is in debt, especially as oil prices pretty much cratered in the Spring of 2020 due to the pandemic. Additionally, according to a recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, fracking companies are spending more money now than they are generating. Globally, 400,000 jobs have been lost in the oil and gas energy sector – and nearly half of those in the United States. Meanwhile, according to the International Energy Agency, “global energy demand is expected to contract by 6% in 2020, the largest drop in more than 70 years. Global CO2 emissions are expected to decline by 8% in 2020, falling to their lowest level since 2010.” These effects are all because of the pandemic and the fallout from it: rising coronavirus infections, increasing hospitalizations and deaths, and high unemployment and severe economic distress.
It might seem like the disruption in the oil and gas sector leads to an opening for clean energy. Less reliance on fossil fuels should, naturally, mean a transition to clean energy sources like solar, hydro, and wind power. That hasn’t necessarily been the case during this pandemic. Every economic sector is experiencing some form of decline, including the clean energy sector, which has relied heavily on investments to help it move forward, including government support. As the IEA report (from June 2020) notes, the renewable energy sector has been resilient during the pandemic, but “… [d]espite this resilience, renewables’ growth is expected to slow down in 2020.
Covid-19 is devastating the oil and gas industry, but it’s gently nudging the clean energy sector. Overall, however, it is having a significant impact on the energy industry as a whole. Still, there are signs that the energy sector may be addressing this challenge through gradual transitions to clear energy. Texas, for example, is a prominent case study.
As a result of the largest oil and gas companies eliminating and laying off staff due to the Covid-19 epidemic, Texas’s oil jobs have disappeared rapidly. However, as the oil industry started to deteriorate, investors were already placing money towards renewable energy storage.
According to ERCOT (The Electric Reliability Council of Texas), wind power accounted for 6% of Texas’s electricity in 2009. Last year, this percentage went up to 20%. Over this same course of time, coal production in Texas fell by almost half. Additionally, Texas has also made considerable headway on the transition to solar energy, and the state ranks number four in solar capacity. Furthermore, in Austin, Texas, Tesla’s new $1.1 billion “gigafactory” is under construction. This is estimated to build 5,000 jobs from electric vehicles and battery development. Texas can be used as an example to many other states when transitioning out of fracking and oil production into clean energy.
Government support remains an essential key in the transition to clean energy. Federal, state and local levels should prioritize investments in clean energy start-ups and projects. There are signs that Congress will try to push through another pandemic economic relief package – or stimulus – by the end of this year or definitely at the start of the new Biden administration in 2021. Investments in clean energy projects, as part of a larger plan to boldly transition to a future with less air-polluting fossil fuel in it, would be a good start to build a new clean energy infrastructure. That would also create new jobs and spur innovation and help former oil and gas employees transfer their energy sector skill sets into new work.
The fracking industry’s sudden disruption has many positive impacts on clean air, energy pollution, and the future of renewable energy. However, it would be the perfect opportunity now or in the immediate future to start exploring the process of switching to renewable energy. Otherwise, we have industries falling, economies failing, and little to no plans towards making any of that better.