Shale gas in the US: an illusion of consensus – Science et Avenir

This article is taken from the monthly journal Sciences et Avenir – La Recherche #913 of March 2023.

Two candidates: Republican, Democrat. Both have been hostile to shale gas in the past. A well-known Republican physician advised pregnant women living near wells not to drink tap water; the second, the deputy governor of his state, boasted in 2016 that he “does not and never has supported fracking.” However, in the November 2022 election, these two men who were running for governor of Pennsylvania in the United States turned their backs: they both supported shale gas.

Logics? Fracking provides thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania, and the war in Ukraine reminded Americans of the strategic and economic importance of shale gas. Nearly 80% of the natural gas, which provides 40% of the nation’s electricity generation, comes from hydraulic fracturing, and about 18 million Americans live within a mile (1.6 km) of a well.

Divided population

The industry is more profitable than ever: after a record 2022 when gas and oil brought in $156 billion (about €144 billion) in cash, 2023 should still be a great year with $120 billion (about €110 billion) . euros), according to the consultant Rystad Energy. However, this generally accepted picture is misleading.

If two candidates supported shale gas in Pennsylvania, it was because they courted the white male electorate. According to a Muhlenberg College poll in May 2022, Pennsylvania remains very divided across all of its residents, with 48% in favor of fracking, 44% against.

Concerns about the health risks of shale gas have even risen: 67%, up 5% from 2014, say they are “very” or “rather” convinced that this extraction method “poses a big risk to water state resources. In Democratic states, fracking opponents usually win, even if the topic has faded into the background. In California, a referendum proposal to ban the technique did not garner enough signatures to be put to a vote.

Numerous controversies and lawsuits

In shale gas states, there are many disputes and lawsuits related to risks such as earthquakes (there have been an increase in Oklahoma and Texas) or water quality. Even when it comes to the economics of hydraulic fracturing, not everything is so good.

Today’s staggering earnings didn’t make us forget the industry’s horrendous losses until recently ($300 billion or about 276 billion euros from 2010 to 2020). The current profitability of producers can be explained by their great caution: fearing a downturn in the market and prices, they are very reluctant to invest in new production capacities.

Philippe Boulet-Gercourt (New York)

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