Matt Damon’s new film Promised Land is stoking the controversy over fracking, the shorthand for natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. The film pits a big natural gas production company against economically stressed farmers in a Pennsylvania community who are being offered lots of money to permit drilling on their land. To illustrate the alleged evils of fracking, an environmental activist sets a model farm on fire in an elementary class. The film has gotten decidedly mixed reviews for its dramatic appeal and its characterization of the costs and benefits of fracking.
In fact, natural gas production in the United States is way up due to fracking. The process of fracking, which involves pumping water laced with sand and some small amounts of chemicals under high pressure into deep underground shale formations, has enabled drillers to release vast quantities of trapped natural gas. Thanks to fracking, shale gas production has grown from 1.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2007 to 7.8 tcf in 2011. According to the projections of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. natural gas production will rise from 23 tcf in 2011 to 33 tcf in 2040 and almost all of that increase will be due to shale gas production. In his 2012 State of the Union speech, President Obama cited estimates that the U.S. has enough natural gas to last 100 years. That estimate has been questioned, but even if it’s off by a few decades, there’s still plenty of natural gas to burn.
Environmental activists, who once hailed natural gas as the bridge fuel to the renewable energy future, have turned with a vengeance against it. Originally, activists who worried about man-made global warming produced by burning fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide favored fracking because burning natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide emitted by coal. However, local and national environmental groups have turned decisively against shale gas based on both not-in-my-backyard concerns and the fear that cheap natural gas undermines the economic case for solar and wind power.