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Some Democrats Want To Ban Fracking, But Business Group Study Says That Would ‘Devastate’ Economy

Scott Detrow
When a test natural gas well is drilled and there are no pipelines to carry the gas, the gas is burned.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pushed back Thursday against calls from some Democratic presidential candidates to ban fracking, saying that policy would ‘devastate’ the economies of states like Pennsylvania.

The report is the latest entry in a debate about the costs and benefits of natural gas, and the business group’s Global Energy Institute predicted a fracking ban would cause the nation to lose 19 million jobs, both within and outside the oil and gas industry, between 2021 to 2025.

During the same period, the study found, prohibiting the controversial natural gas drilling technique would reduce U.S. gross domestic product by $7.1 trillion and cause natural gas prices to more than quadruple.

“The effects of a ban on hydraulic fracturing would be so sweeping and widespread across the U.S. economy that no industry or region of the economy would not feel its impact,” Global Energy Institute president Marty Durbin told reporters on a call Thursday.

Pennsylvania, the country’s second-largest producer of natural gas, would suffer 609,000 direct and indirect job losses and a drop in tax revenue of more than $70 billion, the chamber said.

Fracking, short for "hydraulic fracturing," involves shooting water, sand, and other compounds underground at high pressure to fracture rock and release oil and gas.

'I think the industry is taking seriously the impact [fracking] has on the communities where it operates, and we work closely with partners at the state level and the federal level on regulations that are necessary.'

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, have called for a nationwide ban on fracking amid concerns about its impact on air and water quality, and its potential to contribute to climate change.

A recent study focused on large swaths of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio found, for example, that drilling's benefits were outweighed by premature deaths caused by pollution.

Durbin acknowledged that the chamber’s study did not account for such factors. But, he said, such matters are best addressed through existing regulations.

Saying he did not want to “minimize” environmental concerns, Durbin added, “I think the industry is taking seriously the impact [fracking] has on the communities where it operates, and we work closely with partners at the state level and the federal level on regulations that are necessary."

In its report, meanwhile, the chamber argues that natural-gas drilling benefits the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal, hydraulic fracturing can affect local water supplies and aquatic habitats because it requires large quantities of water, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency also warns that fracking produces large amounts of contaminated wastewater, causes small earthquakes, and could release natural gas into the atmosphere.

There are also misgivings about the impact of natural gas on climate change. Scientists recently found that a natural gas well that exploded in Ohio in 2018 released more methane over three weeks than the oil and gas industries of France, Norway and the Netherlands emit during the course of a year. Methane is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases.

Locally, some Democrats are divided when it comes to fracking. Some have called for a moratorium on the practice, citing environmental and health concerns. But others tout the industry and its role in creating jobs and attracting related investment that promises to spur further employment.

Shell, for example, is building a “cracker plant” in Beaver County that would make plastic out of ethane, a byproduct of natural gas.

In Thursday’s report, the Chamber of Commerce hailed the construction of the Mariner East pipelines and expansion of the Marcus Hook oil refinery as job creators. The Mariner East project is already moving natural gas from the Pittsburgh area to the Delaware County refinery. Nearby residents argue the projects threaten public safety by carrying volatile natural gas liquids through densely populated areas.

To calculate how a ban on fracking would affect employment, the chamber included direct and indirect job losses. A ban wouldn't just eliminate jobs for oil and gas workers, the report said: It also would reduce consumer spending and slow hiring by increasing energy costs for households and businesses, according to the report. Energy-intensive manufacturing sectors would be especially hard hit, the study predicted.

In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor reported that 52,531 jobs were directly attributable to the state’s oil and gas industry. About 200,000 workers, meanwhile, were employed in 30 other ancillary industries, including road construction, trucking, engineering, and steel, according to the department.