Energy Revolution

The Promise and Peril of the Boom

Fracking means new opportunities and new worries

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Andrew Burton / Getty Images

A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota.

The U.S. is in the midst of a power revolution, driven largely by new technology. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have allowed energy companies to unlock vast new supplies of oil and natural gas.

The benefits are abundant. By displacing dirtier coal, cheap natural gas has helped reduce U.S. -greenhouse-gas emissions even as it has boosted U.S. manufacturers that rely on gas as a feedstock. Falling oil imports means that billions of dollars that once went abroad are now staying in the U.S., providing capital for other investments.

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But energy abundance comes with its own set of challenges. There’s already been an environmental backlash against the fevered exploitation of unconventional oil and gas. Nor is there any guarantee that the recent oil boom—which is dependent on high prices—will continue into the future.

Unconventional oil wells deplete quickly, which means that companies have to drill over and over just to keep production steady. Right now shale oil extraction is profitable only while the price of oil remains high; the boom could end if prices fall. And then there are the environmental limitations.

Fracking uses less water than farming or industry, but it still requires millions of gallons per well, which is already becoming an obstacle in arid states like Colorado. And while states like Texas and North Dakota have embraced fracking wholeheartedly, local fears about water contamination have stopped drilling in gas-rich New York and are likely to slow it elsewhere. The next big shale resource is in California, where influential environmentalists want nothing short of a ban on fracking. “There is no safe way to frack,” says Becky Bond, president of CREDO, a green super PAC. “It endangers communities with water contamination, toxic air emissions and climate change.”

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If new technologies can ensure that fossil fuels remain relatively cheap for decades ahead, it will also be that much more difficult to wean the world off carbon in time to avert dangerous climate change. Global carbon emissions hit an all-time high last year, and the International -Energy Agency reported in June that the world was on a path toward temperature increases that could be as high as 9.5°F by the end of the century. “People can no longer rely on high oil prices and fossil-fuel scarcity to motivate a climate agenda,” says Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California at Davis. “It completely changes the picture.” The American energy revolution is real—but it may be too much of a good thing.

In 1980 biologist and environmental icon Paul Ehrlich and conservative economist Julian Simon made a simple wager. Ehrlich bet that the price of five common metals would rise over the next decade, and Simon bet that the price would fall, with the loser paying the price change on a $1,000 bundle of the five metals. The bet was really a contest of visions. Ehrlich—a neo-Malthusian best known for his 1968 book The Population Bomb—believed that rising prices for materials would show that the world was headed toward scarcity and catastrophe. Simon believed that human creativity would always find ways to make basic resources cheaper and more widely available.

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In 1990, Simon won the bet (and $576.07 from Ehr-lich). Ever since, his vision has prevailed. Scarcity, by and large, gave birth to the new technologies that have ushered the U.S. into a time of relative energy abundance. Geology didn’t decide our destiny. Human ingenuity did. “Today we’ve got booming production of oil and natural gas, rapidly falling oil consumption and rising renewable energy,” says Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s not just one boom. It’s several at the same time.”

But as Yale historian Paul Sabin notes in The Bet, his new book on the Simon-Ehrlich wager, “the lessons of the bet don’t extend to climate change.” The same innovations that have resurrected oil and gas production in the U.S. have extended the age of fossil fuels, making it that much more difficult to break free of them. A number of independent studies have suggested that the world has to stop emitting carbon dioxide by midcentury to avoid dangerous climate change. We’re not likely to get there if we keep inventing ways to extract and then burn the hydrocarbons still in the ground. “It appears that the good Lord has set up a -real test for us,” says Bill McKibben, the writer–activist who helps lead the group “We have to decide if we want a habitable planet or not—and if we do, we can’t dig this stuff up.”

The threat of climate change is very real, and we now know that we’re ingenious enough to extract more than enough hydrocarbons to burn ourselves alive. McKibben is right. If we want a habitable world, we’ll need to choose it. Geology won’t do it for us.

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