“I do rule out banning fracking, because the answer we need, we need other industries to transition to, ultimately, a completely zero emissions by 2025,” said President-elect Joe Biden in the final presidential debate.
The former vice president, and now president-elect, elaborated that to him, the focus in mitigating climate change would be on carbon capture methods and eventually transitioning to renewable energy sources.
After the debate, President Donald Trump stated that he would protect fracking in the interest of maintaining low prices for energy and preserving American jobs.
A failing that underscored both sides of the debate on fracking is a fundamental misunderstanding of what fracking is and the role it plays in the fossil fuel industry, according to Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, civil and environmental engineering.
“Why are we talking about fracking in 2020? Clearly, there’s something wrong here,” Ingraffea said. “Something doesn’t jive, and what’s wrong is that there is profoundly universal misuse of the word fracking.”
Fracking rose to national importance when it was repeatedly mentioned during the final presidential debate, leading many to scrutinize Biden’s position on the matter and whether he should not ban fracking to win over the key battleground state of Pennsylvania — in which 26,000 people are employed by the oil and gas industry. Despite this attention, Ingraffea thinks that the candidate’s lack of expertise on the matter has led to an inflation of fracking’s importance.
Fracking has been commonplace in the United States for nearly 75 years — which begs the question of why it is coming up in a presidential election now.
A 75 Year History
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of utilizing water, under high pressure, to create cracks — or fractures — in rocks deep underground. These fractures can then be used to extract oil and gas that was previously inaccessible.
While this is the process that the president-elect so frequently harkened back to on the campaign trail, this process of stimulating rock is not the problem, Ingraffea said.
However, the phenomenon that is at the root of exacerbating climate change, contaminating water supplies and suppressing the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not hydraulic fracturing, but what is known as “unconventional drilling.”
This practice taps into a type of rock — shale rock — previously untouched by conventional drilling methods. Shale rock forms when mud, which often contains dead plant and animal matter that becomes oil and gas over the course of millions of years, is condensed. Over time, heat and pressure drives the oil and gas toward the surface, into what is known as “reservoir rock.”
“The problem is in the early 2000s, the oil and gas industry discovered an entirely new way of getting a huge oil and gas resource to market,” Ingraffea said.
Conventional natural gas reserves contain methane that naturally broke free from shale over the course of millions of years, but the practice of extracting natural gas directly from shale was not commercially available until 15 years ago, according to Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology.
Tapping into these reserves opened up a Pandora’s box of effects on local communities, contaminating local water sources and releasing emissions that contribute to poorer air quality and worsening the greenhouse effect.
On top of the direct environmental effects of this unconventional drilling, the expansion of obtainable oil and gas kept the price of fossil fuels low, making them more economically desirable than renewable alternatives like wind and solar, and subsequently extending the lifetime of the fossil fuel industry while stalling the transition to renewable energy sources.
“[Unconventional drilling] suppressed, or pushed down, what we should have been elevating — which is capital investment and renewable energy,” Ingraffea said. “The oil and gas industry was saying, ‘Look, we just elongated the fossil fuel industry by 30 years, we made the United States energy dominant’ … The market response to that is, ‘Well, then we don’t need wind and solar and hydro, because there’s this cheaper alternative called shale gas.’”
Resistance From ‘The White House all The Way Down’
Throughout the past 40 years, fossil fuel companies have used their monetary and political sway to postpone the transition to other sources of energy — spreading misinformation on oil and gas emissions’ connection to climate change and lobbying for subsidies.
Ingraffea and Howarth are no strangers to this political and economic arm of the fossil fuel industry.
Ingraffea began his career on the other side of the fence — working for fossil fuel companies and learning how to best extract oil and gas from rock. Ingraffea worked for the industry until around 2008, when he and some of his colleagues realized that this industry was having severe, negative impacts on local communities and worldwide.
On a local level, these drilling sites can release ozone, which can cause coughing and respiratory irritation in the short term but can also worsen chronic conditions like asthma.
“What they were doing was having profound impacts locally on human health and globally, indirectly, because of climate change,” Ingraffea said. “The local [effects] from the leaking, and the spilling that goes along with oil and gas development and its impact on drinking water and air being breathed by local residents.”
Upon coming to these realizations Ingraffea began to speak out against unconventional drilling, but the oil and gas industry didn’t take kindly to Ingraffea’s change in tone.
In the 1990s, Ingraffea was one of the founders of the American Rock Mechanics Association, for which he frequently gave presentations, conducted research and wrote papers. Following his shift in tone toward drilling, Ingraffea was forced out of the very group he helped found.
“I got blackballed … When I started to research and write and speak, in opposition, I was told I was no longer invited. I tried to publish in the newsletters and the blogs and was prohibited from doing so,” Ingraffea said. “It’s frustrating. It’s aggravating, nauseating, infuriating.”
Nevertheless, he moved on, focusing his efforts in the world of academia, teaching classes and mentoring other engineers.
It was around this time Ingraffea crossed paths with Howarth. After a six-month sabbatical, Howarth returned to a campus bustling with conversations about methane emissions from fracking. As a biogeochemist with an interest in the interactions of chemicals in ecosystems, Howarth looked into who was researching the effect of methane emissions from fracking on the atmosphere only to find there was no one.
Howarth’s colleagues at Cornell encouraged him to talk to Ingraffea because of his deep knowledge of fracking. After meeting, the two decided to merge their expertise in fracking and methane emissions to write a paper investigating the environmental effects of fracking in shale rock.
The paper, published in 2011, found that methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This conclusion dashed the notion pushed by the fossil fuel industry that natural gas could be utilized as a “bridge fuel” between oil and renewable energy sources.
The narrative of shale gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil was one championed by the fossil fuel industry and the Obama White House — the paper faced pushback before it was even published.
Howarth had given exclusive rights to the story to The New York Times, allowing the newspaper to cover their research and disclose its findings before it was published. A week before The Times was set to publish its story, much to Howarth’s surprise, the paper had been leaked and The Hill had covered the two professors’ findings — immediately jumping to discredit Ingraffea and Howarth.
“[The paper] is drawing immediate pushback from industry-aligned experts, who question key assumptions,” the article read.
After initial confusion between Howarth and The Times, the biogeochemist investigated the leaked paper and found that it was a version of the paper that had never left his laptop. After reporting the hacking to the police, and briefly communicating with the state police and the FBI, it was still unclear who hacked Howarth’s computer, which prompted him to employ a private cybersecurity expert.
“At that point in time, as of 2011, [the private investigator] said there are 99 to one odds that it came from the Russian mafia working out of the Ukraine that had tight ties to the oil and gas industry,” Howarth said.
This event was just the start of the reaction the two faced in response to their paper — Ingraffea described the pushback they received as coming from all levels, “from the White House all the way down.”
Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy during the Obama administration, even claimed that the paper was not credible.
“There was a very famous Cornell report which we looked at and decided it was not as credible as it — well, we didn’t think it was credible. I’ll just put it that way,” Chu said in 2013.
At the time, the Obama administration was a strong proponent of utilizing shale gas as a bridge fuel — a goal that ran contrary to Howarth and Ingraffea’s findings.
“The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence,” Obama said. “Natural gas isn’t just appearing magically … We’re encouraging it and working with the industry.”
Even at Cornell, the duo faced pushback on their findings. Several professors at the University, Prof. Lawrence Cathles, earth and atmospheric sciences, and Prof. Larry Brown, earth and atmospheric sciences, published a paper in response to Ingraffea and Howarth, taking issue with the underlying assumptions of their analysis.
Cathles and his colleagues argued that methane from fracking is not a more powerful natural gas than other energy sources that release carbon dioxide. Even if the U.S. could effectively reduce its methane emissions from fracking, Cathles stated that much of the methane emissions from the U.S. would be difficult to change.
Nearly a decade later, Cathles doubled down on his position that natural gas should be an integral part of a transition to zero carbon energy.
“I think our criticism of it has stood up rather well,” Cathles said. “You can speak to different people and maybe get different answers, but I think the lion’s share of the science supports it overwhelmingly.”
Cathles said reducing methane emissions would have little impact and extremely difficult, given 40 percent of methane emissions are natural and another 40 percent come from landfills or agricultural practices.
He also took issue with the claim that methane gas is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, partly because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere much longer than methane does.
“[Howarth and Ingraffea] took a short term [global warming potential factor] rather than a longer term one,” Cathles said. “Natural gas is not an intrinsic problem. In terms of global warming, in fact, it has the advantage of avoiding CO2 emissions.”
The response to Howarth and Ingraffea’s paper followed the two around for several years — a Google search for either of them would bring up an industry-sponsored advertisement, linking to blog posts that discredit the two scientists’ work, contradicting the general policy of not publishing content that attacks an individual’s integrity.
“Imagine if I’m trying to recruit a new graduate student to work in the lab,” Howarth said. “They want to find something about me — they Google me [and say] ‘Oh God, my colleagues at Cornell think I’m a liar.’”
Energy in Depth, a blog run by the Independent Petroleum Association of American, went even further, tailing Ingraffea as he gave talks and presentations against unconventional drilling techniques. An Energy in Depth reporter would follow Ingraffea wherever he gave talks across New York and Pennsylvania.
“This guy would show up with a video camera and he would video part of my talk,” Ingraffea said. “They would extract it and take something I said totally out of context, and write an article for their blog about it.”
The blog went further, doxing Ingraffea by publishing a picture of Ingraffea’s house with his address, with the goal of encouraging their followers to pester Ingraffea.
“Very soon thereafter our mail started disappearing. We got letters from creditors saying you haven’t paid your bills and then we noticed our checks hadn’t been canceled,” Ingraffea said. “So you know they steal the mail and they rip up your payments just to be irritating.”
Despite the brazen attempts to dissuade the two scientists from spreading their findings, they persisted.
“How do you deal with it? You go on, life goes on,” Ingraffea said. “You just live with it. Just keep publishing, keep doing research, and watch other people publish and do research.”
In the years since the publishing of their initial paper, other researchers have reaffirmed Ingraffea and Howarth’s findings. In February, researchers from the University of Rochester found large increases in atmospheric methane after industrialization, conflicting with the claim that much of methane emissions occur naturally.
These findings matched Howarth’s latest estimates from a study in 2019, which found that 3.5 percent of shale gas production is emitted into the atmosphere.
Shifting the Narrative
As it stands, fracking and the fossil fuel industry are synonymous in much of the public debate, according to Ingraffea.
“Take the word ‘fracking’ out of the debate and get to the point,” Ingraffea said. “The point is not fracking, fracking was just one little tool that the industry had to use, among many others, to get oil and gas out of shale.”
Fracking is only one step of many in the process of extracting and burning fossil fuels, and shouldn’t be treated as the only way to take power away from them.
So where does the Biden-Harris ticket fall short on its energy policy?
“It’s crucially important to name the problem correctly … [Transitioning to renewable energy] should be a highlight, not an apology, they’re tripping over their own words,” Ingraffea said. “Why aren’t they getting it? Because they’re not technical. They’re not scientists and not engineers.”
The Biden-Harris administration has committed to prohibiting fracking on public land. Ingraffea said this move is little more than symbolic, as most fracking in states like Pennsylvania and Texas occur on private lands — only 11 percent of fracking nationally occurring on public lands.
The candidates’ lack of knowledge on fracking calls for the expertise of advisers, which Ingraffea said is not there.
In July, Biden unveiled his “Climate Engagement Advisory Council,” a group of six intended to engage voters whose priority was climate change. Out of the six advisers five were politicians, and the one scientist in the group — Cecilia Martinez — is not an expert in fracking.
Since his election, Biden has also appointed a transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department. While the team features a slew of environmental activists, it is still largely attorneys and civil servants from the Obama-era.
Due to this misunderstanding, Ingraffea said the Biden-Harris ticket is defending something they should be proud of, moving away from fossil fuel industries, and apologizing for something they shouldn’t, moving toward renewable energy.
The transition toward renewable energy sources has begun, according to Ingraffea, with investors moving away from oil and gas companies as they become less profitable. In August, Exxon Mobil, an oil and gas company, dropped off of the Dow Jones Industrial Average — a list of 30 of the largest companies in the US. ExxonMobil was the longest standing member of the list, and in 2013 was the largest U.S. company in terms of market value.
Earlier this year, Cornell’s administrators and trustees took notice of these economic trends and decided to enact a moratorium on all future investments in the fossil fuel industry.
“There’s a growing recognition that we’re transitioning away from fossil fuels globally, and the economic competitiveness of renewable energy sources is rising,” Cornell’s chief investment officer Ken Miranda said in a University press release. “We’re doing the right thing from an investment perspective, particularly for an endowment with a perpetual time horizon.”
With the private sector moving toward renewable energy sources, the next step in transitioning to renewable energy sources is the government ending its subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
Where the Democratic ticket hits the mark, according to Ingraffea said, is with regards to subsidies — Biden has already committed to ending federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, which has historically subsisted off a combination of federal subsidies and loans from Wall Street donors.“Since I’ve been alive, the gas industry has been screwing the American public both ways: They’ve been forcing the government to subsidize them through American taxpayers dollars and they’ve been taking private individuals investment money,” Ingraffea said.
What Biden needs, according to Ingraffea, is a national energy plan that could effectively manage the decline of the fossil fuel industry and foster the growth of renewable energy while ensuring that the economy is not thrown into disarray.
“What’s needed is a plan, a national energy plan that involves managed decline of fossil fuel development and use and managed increase of non fossil fuels such that the net effect on quality of life and national economy is unaffected,” Ingraffea said. “That’s a complex problem.”
The plan, Ingraffea said, has to balance the science and economics of transitioning the country to renewable energy with the social ramifications of restructuring the energy supply chain. The national energy plan should be enacted in a way that consumers don’t take notice, and so the transition doesn’t economically affect marginalized communities.
Fortunately for Ingraffea, it seems that the tides are changing when it comes to climate policy. As some have called Biden the “Climate President”, climate change-conscious voters have mobilized in historic numbers.
Leading the charge in this election was the Sunrise Movement, which has risen to national prominence since its founding in 2017. In the 2020 general election, the group — dedicated to making climate change a political priority and minimizing the influence of fossil fuel executives — reached approximately 3.5 million unique young voters and 8 million voters in total, encouraging them to vote for Biden.
Alongside Sunrise, Tom Steyer’s Next Gen American dedicated $45 million to mobilizing young voters and the Environmental Voter Project speng $2.05 million to reach 1.8 million first time voters.
These groups don’t intend to halt their activism now that the election is over, “We’re seeing that Joe Biden has a climate mandate,” said Varshini Prakash, head of the Sunrise Movement. “We expect him to do everything in his power to act on climate change.”
Regardless of the specifics, Ingraffea stressed the importance of taking swift action, even stating that forming a group or committee of climate experts to formulate a national energy plan should be a “day one” policy for the Biden-Harris Ticket.
“Smart people gathered together from a variety of disciplines with a singular focus: Save us from climate change by reducing the demand for and the use of fossil fuels while increasing the demand for and use of renewable energy such that we don’t screw up society,” Ingraffea said. “If I was running for president that’s what I would be saying.”