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Fracking Has Changed the Energy Policy Debate

Fracking Has Changed the Energy Policy Debate

By Adam O'Neal - October 28, 2014

The second in a series of articles this week on energy innovation and the American economy

Few policy objectives over the last half-century have proven as tantalizing for presidents as the call to achieve energy independence.

In 1973 -- as a gasoline shortage consumed the nation -- President Richard Nixon outlined Project Independence 1980, “a series of plans and goals set to insure that by the end of this decade, Americans will not have to rely on any source of energy beyond our own.” Gerald Ford, in his 1975 State of the Union address, called for “a massive program” to ease demand and increase supply “to achieve the independence we want by 1985.” Jimmy Carter, more modestly, aimed for the United States to cut its dependence on foreign oil by half by the end of the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all set similar goals at different points in their presidential campaigns or presidencies. Typically, their political opponents did too. Little serious progress toward those goals was achieved during most of their terms in office.

And now -- after more than 40 years of promises, programs, and extended deadlines -- the United States is on the verge of producing more energy than it consumes. Some programs, such as new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, help. But the greatest force behind the changing energy landscape is more technological than political.

Innovative production techniques have allowed energy companies to access shale oil and natural gas deposits that simply hadn’t been accessible before. At the heart of this is hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The process uses pressurized liquid to create cracks in rock, thus releasing different energy sources from the ground.  The results have been stunning.

Crude oil production has increased 50 percent since George W. Bush’s final full year in office. Petroleum imports are now at levels not seen in 40 years, and they continue trending downward. Natural gas production is up by around 30 percent over the last decade. Shale gas production -- once a rounding error in the overall energy production picture -- now constitutes 44 percent of America’s gas output.

The nation’s changing energy landscape will have long-term, impossible to predict, political implications. Presidents will still squabble with Congress about how we get our energy. A surplus will almost certainly spark a debate about whether to continue pressing for more conservation -- or to export aggressively to other parts of the world.
However, the new paradigm for discussing energy policy has already taken hold. Politicians now reflexively acknowledge how the recent shale boom has altered our debate entirely. Two major changes have already ensued.

1. Fracking is a major political issue, and politicians are expected to have an opinion.

More than 2 million oil and gas wells have been tapped using hydraulic fracturing, and 95 percent of new wells today use the process. Fracking isn’t a regional issue, either: From Los Angeles to Fargo, politicians have taken stands on the technique. And political donations from the fracking industry have increased by more than 200 percent in the last decade.

Virtually any candidate for federal or state office needs to have a position on fracking. The process is controversial, but politicians often find it difficult to oppose -- especially in red or purple states. (Even California’s deep-blue legislature couldn’t pass a moratorium on fracking, though the city of Los Angeles did.)

Colorado -- a state with both tourist-attracting natural features and a booming energy sector -- serves as an excellent example of the fraught politics of fracking.

Four contentious oil and gas measures were headed for the Colorado ballot this November. Two were supported by the energy industry; two were backed by environmentalists. But Democrats grew concerned that the propositions could motivate Republicans to turn out in greater numbers at the polls, making more likely the possibility that Gov. John Hickenlooper and/or Sen. Mark Udall would lose their re-election bids. Republicans also grew worried about the initiatives firing up Democrats in a midterm expected to be a low-turnout affair.

A late compromise -- brokered between Colorado’s generally business-friendly Democratic governor, environmentalists, and energy firms -- led to all of the ballot proposals being withdrawn, with the governor instead forming a task force to make recommendations about oil and gas issues. The new panel will include representatives from the industry, environmental groups, and civic institutions.

Each party avoided a major political battle playing out in an election year, and fracking remains an unsettled issue in the state.

2. A new political cliché has been born.

Calling for “energy independence” was once a default line for politicians. The new safe stance when asked about energy priorities is “all of the above.”

When Democrats in red states like Montana or West Virginia are asked about their beliefs on coal or other fossil fuels, they say that they support just such an approach to energy policy. It allows them to satisfy their state’s fossil-fuel supporters as well as the more liberal base (which emphasizes renewable energy).

Meanwhile, Republicans utter a similar mantra to satisfy independents and cross-over Democrats who support alternative energy, while assuring their conservative base that they still support fossil fuel usage.

Consider Colorado’s heavily contested Senate race, where a cursory glance at each candidate’s energy policy would lead a voter to believe that Mark Udall and Cory Gardner really aren’t all that different.

Incumbent Udall says that “we will need an all-of-the-above strategy that includes all of our energy sources, with a special emphasis on those that are clean and domestic.”

Gardner, his challenger, “has championed a true all-of-the-above energy strategy that maximizes domestic production and reduces our dependence on foreign imports,” according to his campaign website.

Most contests look the same way.

America’s energy problems aren’t going away; they’re just less scary these days. Rather than debating how to survive an oil embargo, policymakers are discussing whether the latest drilling techniques are safe (and as efficient as possible).

In 40 years, reporters likely won’t point out that politicians have repeatedly called for energy independence. Instead, they’ll assess whether those leaders made the most of energy opportunities that tech breakthroughs brought the country.

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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