RAFUSE: Unilateral energy disarmament

Taking ‘fracking’ off the table would give foreign energy suppliers leverage

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In the past few years, a little-known process used to drill for natural gas - hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” - has drawn increasing interest inside the Beltway.

There has already been vociferous dialogue at the regional level - and just Thursday in House hearings on Capitol Hill because of the huge economic potential at stake. But beyond local and national issues lies a crucial international question: How will the fracking debate impact Washington (and Beijing and Moscow and Caracas)?

This debate has significant global political implications. And its possible outcomes far outweigh the narrow desires of special interests seeking to head off one of the highest-potential energy developments since Ben Franklin grabbed a kite and a key.

Developed nearly 60 years ago, fracking technology injects mostly water and sand into shale rock buried deep underground, cracking the shale and releasing the natural gas trapped inside. Without this technology, vast reserves of natural gas were inaccessible. It was as if it weren’t there at all. Now, our natural-gas resources have more than tripled virtually overnight.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of fracking technology to the U.S. economy and to world trade. As the International Energy Agency’s Anne-Sophie Corbeau noted, “A few years ago, the United States was ready to import gas,” making the country still more reliant on foreign energy supplies. Instead, she notes, by 2009 “it had become the world’s biggest gas producer.”

“This is phenomenal, unbelievable,” she said.

“Phenomenal” is the appropriate term to describe an unprecedented opportunity to slash our reliance on imports from unstable regions and reduce the risk of a major global disruption.

Despite the United States surging ahead of Russia in production, Russia remains the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. Its production is controlled almost exclusively by government-run Gazprom, which enjoys a near-monopoly on gas deliveries to Eastern Europe and beyond.

Given that near-monopoly, it’s little wonder Vladimir Putin & Co. have been relentless with their anti-fracking talking points. Economic columnist Robert Samuelson rightly points out, “Shale gas in Europe and Asia has huge geopolitical implications. It could reduce dependence on Russian natural gas and frustrate any gas cartel mimicking OPEC.”

Thus, fracking is Russia’s “f-word.” That is all very understandable, given the fact that the shale-gas boom could turn the United States into an exporter.

We’ve witnessed equally vociferous naysaying at a domestic level, too. When it became apparent that shale gas represented a cleaner, traditional fossil fuel that might truly revolutionize America’s energy landscape, anti-fossil-fuel activists and NIMBY-ists turned against it.

If it survives their rhetoric and scare tactics, shale-gas production could play a vital role in the Beltway’s current economic debate. U.S. Democratic leaders such as President Obama, and Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and others have spent the past few months touting the need for America to transition to a trade surplus. Since the fracking technique has unlocked an estimated 100 years’ worth of domestic gas supply, we’ve moved suddenly from talk of importing to discussing the possibility of exporting.

So back to our own backyard: Yes, a spirited dialogue is healthy and necessary for effective evaluation of our energy policies. But overblown, unfounded scare campaigns threaten to harm our energy future, the promise of economic growth and our national security.

Those are very high stakes for the United States. Without this energy resource, U.S. leaders cannot bargain from strength with key foreign allies and negotiate deals successfully. A no-fracking policy would be a unilateral disarmament policy, and that risk is not worth playing.

Jack Rafuse, a former energy adviser in the Nixon administration, heads the Rafuse Organization.

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