Give Fracking a Break

Charles Crumpley
Editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal

Ever since the first Arab oil embargo in 1973, we’ve heard a line of reasoning that goes something like this: The United States is running out of oil and natural gas. We need to import ever-increasing quantities of oil from other countries, many of which hate us. That means we are slowly enriching our enemies. We’re doomed.

But that line of reasoning is about out of gas. One of the most underreported and underappreciated stories of recent years is the comeback of American oil and gas production. Offshore oil finds have been more bountiful than expected, but, as oil expert Daniel Yergin wrote last month in the Wall Street Journal: “The big surprise is onshore, where the United States is experiencing an oil boom.”

U.S. petroleum imports, on a net basis, hit a peak of 60 percent of domestic consumption in 2005, he wrote. Now, they’ve dwindled to 46 percent, thanks to increased domestic oil production.

Natural gas is even more dramatic. Not long ago, we were figuring how to import large volumes of it. (Remember the spate of LGN terminals proposed around Los Angeles five years ago?) Since then, as one gas company exec put it, we’ve discovered a couple of Saudi Arabias worth of natural gas right under our feet. Now, we’re talking about how America has a 100-year supply of the stuff.

Why this turnaround? It’s because of today’s improved extraction technologies, mainly hydraulic fracturing or what’s commonly called fracking.

Occidental Petroleum Corp., Los Angeles County’s biggest public company, is relying more on fracking, particularly in the fields of Kern County in the Central Valley, where there is something of a mini-boom of oil production. But the practice is being challenged by environmentalists. If successful, they would stop fracking and with it, most of the new bounty of oil and gas that we’ve begun extracting.

If the environmentalists had their way, fracking would come to a complete stop, here and everywhere, forever and ever. End of story.

Funny, but Oxy historically specialized in producing oil in politically volatile places like Libya and Ecuador, where the oil company’s operations could be interrupted or even seized by a hostile government. To minimize its exposure to such perils, Oxy in recent years began focusing more in the United States, particularly California. Ironically, it now faces political perils in the United States – where its operations could be halted.

Yes, it’s important to ensure that oil and gas is being produced in an environmentally sound way. Of course, no one wants tainted water supplies or anything that could pose a real chance to be hazardous to our health. But it’s simply not reasonable to reflexively ban fracking. There’s got to be a rational compromise here.

After all, enriching countries that hate us can be even more hazardous to our health.

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