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The Fracking Debate with Researcher and Author Daniel Raimi

April 04, 2018
On April 3rd, the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, the Penn Program on Regulation, and the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative hosted a lunchtime conversation with author Daniel Raimi, a senior research associate at Resources for the Future, who discussed his new book, “The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution”. Cary Coglianese, law professor and director of the Penn Program on Regulation, moderated the discussion.

Raimi’s book explores the rapid surge in oil and gas production in the United States over the last decade—thanks largely to technological advances such as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking.” This rapid increase has generated widespread debate, with proponents touting economic and energy-security benefits and opponents highlighting the environmental and social risks of increased oil and gas production.

The Fracking Debate directly addresses the most common questions and concerns associated with fracking: What is fracking? Does fracking pollute the water supply? Will fracking make the United States energy independent? Does fracking cause earthquakes? How is fracking regulated? Is fracking good for the economy? Simultaneously, the book explores the stories of the people and communities affected by the shale revolution, for better and for worse.

Raimi began the conversation by reflecting on the time he spent from 2012 to 2015 visiting every major shale formation in the United States in order to research the impact of new oil production on local governments. After visiting these county courthouses and city halls to discuss the issue with officials, Raimi would visit local restaurants and bars to talk to local citizens in order to better understand the oil industry’s impact on the community. This experience helped shape his book and revealed the need to answer questions about fracking that are evidence based and even handed.

Daniel Raimi discusses image of oil well from his visits to Shale drilling sites throughout the United States.

So what is fracking? Raimi explained that the term was short for hydraulic fracturing, a type of well stimulation that occurs after drilling. In shale formations one mile or more into the ground, water, sand and a mixture of chemicals are pumped into the well to create fractures in the rock. The sand helps wedge the fractures open, from which oil and gas flow to the surface. Raimi noted that people have been stimulating wells for years, and while the technology has changed from dynamite to high pressure water, the concept of stimulation isn’t entirely new. What has changed is it is now being applied at a larger scale than ever before: millions of gallons of water are being injected and applied to tight sources, sources of oil that companies had not been able to economically reach until now.

Raimi continued, noting that debates around fracking are contentious and while pundits don’t agree on much, everyone can agree that shale gas production has profoundly affected the oil and gas industry in the United States. “The increase in oil surprised pretty much everyone,” Raimi said, adding that the US now produces more than 10 million barrels a day – a level unseen since the 1970s.

A map of the country with hydraulically fractured wells showed the wide span of areas impacted by this new kind of drilling. The large plates of shale rock covering the US are the home to fracking, and Raimi has visited towns in each place. He recalled his experience in Pennsylvania at the Marcellus Shale, remembering his own mental image about what shale development is supposed to look like. “I pictured Texans and Oklahomans getting into fights and making trouble, and massive trucks on the road,” he said. Surprisingly, however, his mental image of industrial activity occurring in Pennsylvania did not match the actual setting. Fewer trucks were on the road than expected, the oil wells weren’t as prominent in the landscape, and the rural area’s rolling hills and old barns were pristine and untouched.

Raimi specifically spoke about his experience at Dimock Township, and the neighbors living along Carter Road. Each house on the small dirt road had signs encouraging the ban of fracking because they had been impacted by contaminated water sources resulting from natural gas leakage. The city had determined that over a dozen wells supplying water to the homes on this road were impacted by stray methane gas. Raimi warned the audience of the dangers of methane accumulation: if enough of the gas accumulates, it can spontaneously combust – and it did, destroying the shed of a homeowner on the road.

But how common is methane migration? As of a couple of months ago, there have been just over 300 cases of oil and gas contamination in Pennsylvania resulting from both fracking wells and other sources. In 2010, 1,600 new wells were drilled in PA and 12 cases of stray gas contamination occurred – under 1% of wells were affected. In 2015, 800 new wells were drilled in PA and 0 cases of stray gas contamination occurred – even less than in previous years. Raimi pointed out the rarity of these gas leaks, noting that “the basic trend persists in other parts of the country.” Even though a small percentage of oil and gas wells cause problems, this small percentage across the many thousands of wells drilled affects a significant number of people.

For the most part, the people in Dimock Township were actually pro-fracking, Raimi said, but after the contamination, the city put a 9-mile moratorium around the area. While the homeowners affected were relieved, other citizens were upset since they never earned the economic benefits of leasing their land.

Another area Raimi visited was the Permian Basin in West Texas. This is the leading oil producing region in the United States and the area underwent an enormous resurgence in the last decade. Raimi showed images of the oil and gas wells so ubiquitous in the city’s landscape – some older and rusted, and others more modern and new. In fact, it is common to see oil wells in people’s backyards, showing that citizens are comfortable with the piping of poisonous gas under their houses since they have been living with the industry since the 1920s. In addition to the numerous drilling sites, the area had many wind and solar resources to support the extraction.

Within this shale formation, the town of Balmorhea is a special place to Texan residents. It is home to one of the world’s largest spring fed pools surrounded by the picturesque Davis Mountains, the temperature is mild year-round, and the deep space observatory is the pride of the area. Even though this town sits atop a hotbed of oil and gas activity, no drilling had occurred in the area until 2016 when a drilling company acquired thousands of acres around the area.

In contrast to the general comfort level and popularity of oil drilling in the Permian Basin, residents and lovers of this small town were not happy about extraction. Raimi explained the views of Rick and Janice, friends he made on his travels who work in the oil and gas industry themselves. They generally support drilling, but see this town as particularly special and worthy of preservation and so want to protect it from the industry. “For them, any risk is too high,” Raimi explained.

He continued, saying that while most Republicans say “drill, baby, drill” and Democrats advocate keeping oil in the ground, the actual residents of areas where drilling occurs do not participate in the sloganeering nor have such black and white views.

Daniel Raimi talking about Barrow, Alaska

Lastly, Raimi spoke about his experience in Barrow, Alaska, a town 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and one of northernmost cities in the country. The path to Barrow is by small plane or by boat, if the sea ice thaws, since no roads go to the area. Local Alaskans subsist on whale meat, which they store year round in their basements – natural freezers due to the heavy layer of permafrost in the area.

Unfortunately, rapidly rising sea levels in the Arctic Circle and the melting permafrost have threatened the way of life for these individuals – they are no longer able to preserve their food, and the whale population is affected by climate change, too. But even though these native Alaskans are worried about climate change, they remain pro-drilling.

Raimi said that though methane emissions are a powerful greenhouse gas, when you look at the breadth of research, methane emissions are not a large enough problem to cancel out the advantages of using natural gas over coal. On the flip side, cheap natural gas makes it more difficult for renewables to compete for investment dollars and consumer market share. As long as prices are low, more people will use natural gas energy, which increases emissions. Despite this increase in greenhouse gases, Raimi cited research saying that the levels of emissions we currently experience post Shale Revolution are comparable to those that would have existed had we not begun fracking.

He continued to explain that increased natural gas use can help replace the 30% of US energy usage that comes from coal. “This is a scalable…low cost policy option for policy makers. But whether or not policy makers will take advantage of this is unlikely in the current administration,” Raimi noted. There are further opportunities that the Shale Revolution has provided in terms of economic advantages for regions producing the shale oil and gas, as well as geopolitical and foreign policy advantages for America relative to the world.

Raimi concluded, emphasizing the need of good policies to better “hone the interventions, beef up the benefits, and reduce the downsides. We need to tamp down the rhetoric and really evaluate the research.”

To see a video recording and slide presentation of the talk visit  the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy event page.

About the Speakers

Daniel Raimi is a senior research associate at Resources for the Future, where he focuses on energy and climate policy. He also teaches energy policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and is a faculty affiliate at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. The Fracking Debate, his first book, is published by Columbia University Press as part of the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy series.

Cary Coglianese is the Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he currently serves as the director of the Penn Program on Regulation. He specializes in the study of regulation and regulatory processes, with an emphasis on the empirical evaluation of alternative regulatory strategies and the role of public participation, negotiation, and business-government relations in policy making.

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