Hydraulic Fracturing Controversy: An Opportunity for the United States to Lead and Set the Record Straight

New estimates released Friday, October 4, by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), shows the United States (U.S.) pulling ahead of both Saudi Arabia and Russia in oil and natural gas production in 2013.  There’s no doubt that this rise to the top is a result of recent development in a new drilling technique known as fracking, a technique that has unlocked large quantities of oil and gas from shale rock formations.

Shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock that can hold deposits of petroleum and natural gas , can be accessed using fracking and horizontal drilling. The success in using this technique in the United States has attracted interest in countries with shale reserves to want to exploit their reserves using fracking.

Fracking, the technology used to drill unconventional natural gas has its positive impacts including job creation, reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the long term by substituting natural gas for coal as well as enhancing energy independence and energy security. However, it presents some environmental challenges leading communities to create anti-fracking organizations.

Countries with shale gas reserves including the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, have shown great interest in fracking and have come to the U.S. for help in extracting their own shale reserves. This resulted in the U.S. signing deals with both India and China to help exploit their shale resources.  Also, state-owned as well as privately-owned Chinese and Indian oil companies have invested huge sums of money in U.S. shale gas development.  Other countries like South Africa sent representatives to visit the U.S. to see firsthand how this technology is being used and what are challenges are involved. The world is relying on the U.S. for leadership because of its experience using the technology.

The U.S. took steps in 2010 to show leadership by inviting representatives from seventeen countries, including India and China, to participate in a two-day international conference hosted by the U.S. State Department. The meeting was dubbed the Global Shale Initiative and was aimed at helping countries around the world reduce their dependence on foreign oil.

Using its own experience, the U.S. walked international delegates through the process of fracking, so that the governments are informed about fracking before they could establish a shale gas industry. Presentations were made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Oil and Gas Companies among others.

With all the controversies surrounding fracking, the Global Shale Initiative was a good first step in leading the fracking debate. Unfortunately, this initiative seemed to have been abandoned because there have not been any follow-up steps since 2010. Countries interested in exploiting their shale reserves look upon the U.S. for guidance and leadership, it is imperative for the U.S. to revamp the Global Shale Initiative and use it as a medium to address the challenges surrounding the use of this new technology. This Initiative should comprise of representatives from nations with shale gas reserves, oil companies performing fracking, environmental organizations and other stakeholders. It should develop model rules to address the adverse effects of fracking on the environment; carry out research to improve on the defects of the technology; provide training and monitor fracking activities in respective member countries, among other things. Also, with many conflicting reports about the environmental, social and economic impacts of shale, an initiative like the Global Shale Initiative will help to set the record straight since it members will comprise of representatives from both environmental groups and oil companies. This will help address the controversies surrounding fracking and instill confidence in communities where fracking is taking place. To achieve this, somebody needs to lead and nobody is in a better position to lead such an initiative than the United States, already a world leader with more fracking experience than any other country.