American oil is enjoying a renaissance few would have predicted even a decade ago. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates nearly half the crude oil we consume will be produced at home within a mere eight years. Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, discoverer of the Bakken oil fields of Montana and North Dakota, goes further and says the United States can produce enough oil to replace OPEC.
What this rosy scenario overlooks is that the environmental movement’s sights increasingly will be set on outlawing - or, at minimum, strangling via regulations - the “fracking” techniques that make it possible to access much of this oil.
Ironically, this was not a battle of choice for U.S. Big Green organizations. Fracking also is responsible for the natural-gas revolution, and it was only yesterday that the major environmental outfits were touting natural gas, which produces half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, as the bridge to a renewable energy future. Chesapeake Energy, this country’s second-largest natural-gas producer, kick-started the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal anti-coal campaign with $26 million in donations. (Such shortsightedness is typical of American corporations - seeking to gain advantage over rivals in the short term, they overlook the probability that their strange bedfellows will soon turn on them.) As recently as 2010, leaders of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) were joining with heads of the natural-gas industry in a Critical Path Energy Summit in Aspen, Colo., in recognition, so they said, “that the only way to unleash the economic, social and environmental benefits of natural gas [is] to work much more closely together.”
But the pressures have been mounting on the U.S. green complex. The same year as the Critical Path Energy Summit, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director Michael Brune says he walked away from an additional $30 million offered by Chesapeake. Part of the pressure comes from the grass roots, which have been fired up in a way unseen since the heady days of the anti-nuclear-energy movement, when outfits like the Clamshell, Palmetto, Shad and Bailly alliances manned the barricades. (Before popular passions were unleashed, both Audubon and the Sierra Club supported nuclear energy for years.) In August 2011, 68 groups, with names like Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, Free the Planet, Gas Truth of Central Pennsylvania and Kids for Saving Earth sent a letter to President Obama urging him to “employ any legal means to put a halt to hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’).” The following month, hundreds of protesters bore down on a shale gas convention in Philadelphia with signs like “Fracking Poisons Air and Water; Fight Back Now,” claiming people were falling ill, cattle were dying and pets were losing their hair. In June, more than 100 groups, along with the usual assortment of celebrities, attacked Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to permit fracking (now under a moratorium) in parts of New York state.
Within the Sierra Club, its Atlantic chapter has been the most vociferous, calling the club’s fracking policy “completely inadequate.”The policy has been to allow chapters to oppose fracking only on a project-by-project basis. In a sign of shifting sentiment within the club, at the 2011 national meeting, the Atlantic chapter’s resolution that would allow chapters to advocate for a total fracking ban passed by a vote of 34-20. (It was referred to committee.)
Another source of pressure on Big Green for an end to fracking comes from other major environmental organizations. Those whose center of gravity is outside the U.S. (where fracking is still largely in the planning stage) have no problem issuing full-throated denunciations. The World Wildlife Fund declares baldly, “We’re against the use of fracking to extract shale gas - or any other ‘unconventional’ fuels - from the ground.” On April 24, both Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace signed off on a position statement calling on all members of the EU “to suspend all ongoing activities [regarding shale gas or oil], to abrogate permits, and to place a ban on any new projects, whether exploration or exploitation.”
Organizations like the NRDC and the Sierra Club, accustomed to being on the environmental cutting edge, cannot afford to be left in the dust by rivals for status and funds. Nor can they afford to be depicted as retrograde has-beens by environmental activists. Ban Michigan Fracking was formed in 2011 in direct response to the Sierra Club and others pushing to make fracking “safe.” According to Ban Michigan Fracking, “it cannot be done safely” and “the only way to protect Michigan water, air, land and people’s health is an all-out ban on fracking.” Grass-roots groups like theirs, they complain, “have been thwarted, undermined and undercut by pro-‘safe fracking’ Big Greens.”
All the signs point to most U.S. Big Green organizations climbing aboard the end-fracking bandwagon. In a July 2011 blog, while falling just short of demanding an outright ban, NRDC President Frances Beinecke sums up her long litany of the supposed evil effects of the technique: “Fracking is dangerous and it is destructive. It puts our workers, our waters, our air and wildlife at risk.” In February, the Sierra Club filed a formal objection with the Department of Energy against the export of liquefied natural gas because it means “more dangerous fracking, a secretive and toxic part of the production process that the Sierra Club has no confidence in.” Sierra has called for a moratorium on fracking in many states, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Maryland and Michigan. In an interview in the most recent issue of Sierra Magazine, Mr. Brune says solar and wind “are ready for prime-time now,” so “we don’t need a bridge.” Speaking of the hundreds of gas-fired plants planned to replace coal, he declares: “We are determined to stop the expansion of fossil fuel production and we’re going to be a leading force to make sure that those plants aren’t built.”
We can look forward to a raft of lawsuits (the NRDC’s specialty), campaigns focused on governors and state legislators to ban or severely restrict fracking, and pressure on regulatory agencies. Already, Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar has issued draft fracking rules estimated to add at least $1.2 billion to the cost of new wells in 13 states. That’s before the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies get into the act. Make fracking expensive enough, and the oil and natural-gas renaissance will be, to paraphrase the poem of Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy, a dream that is not “coming to birth.”
No one wants to take on the potent environmental lobby, but the day draws ever closer when this country will be forced to make the choice between economic prosperity and environmental zealotry.
Rael Jean Isaac is author of “Roosters of the Apocalypse: How the Junk Science of Global Warming Almost Bankrupted the Western World” (Heartland, 2012).