On Tuesday, July 25, the Interior Department published in the Federal Register a proposal to repeal a two year old regulation setting standards for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on public land.

This may bring to a new level of intensity an ongoing controversy about the practice of fracking, the harm it does to the communities where it occurs, even the harm it may do to the globe generally, to the extent it works. After all if fracking does draw a lot of gas and oil from the ground, the effect may well be to keep the economy wedded to dependence on the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

Fracking is the use of techniques developed in the 1990s by drillers trying to get the best out of incremental properties – out of what they feared were dry holes. It involves the use of fluid that hydraulically cracks the rock and of “proppants,” chemicals that keep the fractures open.   One particular North Texas well, known as S.H. Griffin #4, which started producing natural gas in 1998, is regarded as the breakthrough moment for the industry, the frackers’ equivalent of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk.

Many people are ill disposed to celebrate this particular breakthrough. Opposition stoked by a 2010 documentary on HBO, Gasland, has grown in the subsequent years. Also, the fracking revolution, originally a way of getting natural gas out of shale formations, spread as techniques improved so that crude oil now also finds its way to the surface in the same manner.

Left Wing View

The administration of President Barack Obama took a middle-of-the-road position on fracking, leaving both the industry and its leftward opponents unhappy.  Now the Administration of Donald Trump proposes the repeal of those compromise standards.

Giving a high-profile face to the opposition, actor James Cromwell recently served a three day sentence for blocking traffic at a sit-in protest of the construction of a 650 megawatt natural gas fired power plant in Wawayanda, New York. Twitter is full of earnest appeals to the state’s Governor to take up the cause of the Wawayanda activists.

Nuns in Pennsylvania have built a church in the path of a natural gas pipeline that would carry (fracked) natural gas to markets in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern United States.  The nuns’ order is known as the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.  In early July, the Adorers dedicated a chapel on a small strip of land in Hempfield Township, Lancaster County.  Their twitter hashtag is #standwiththesisters.

A Semantic Observation

Oil obtained from fracking is sometimes called “shale oil,” with reference to the low-permeability rock formations whence gas and oil can only be recovered through such techniques.  This usage, though, causes some confusion, because there is an unrelated chemical process used to convert shale rock fragments into synthetic oil, and the result of that process, too, is called “shale oil.”

But synthetic shale oil is still largely on the drawing boards, whereas fracked shale oil is very much a commercial reality.

As a general rule, and leaving natural gas aside: when those to the left of center are discussing recent developments in the production of oil, they speak of “fracking.” When those to the right of center discuss the same developments, they may say “shale oil.”

Right Wing View

The proposed repeal of restrictions on fracking is but one part of the Trump administration’s broader pro-fossil-fuels approach to energy policy and geopolitics.

In late June, the administration devoted a week to making the case that the United States is on the brink of becoming a net exporter of oil, gas, and coal. In that context, special assistant to the president                 Dave Banks said that the new era of ”energy abundance” puts the U.S. in a “totally different place” than that of the scarcities and import demands of recent decades.

On July 6, Victor Davis Hanson, writing in National Review celebrated news that, due to fracking, the United States is now “close to reaching 10 million barrels of crude-oil production per day, the highest level in the nation’s history.” He said that the U.S. “may soon surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest petroleum producer.”   

The debate over fracking has even come in recent days to intersect in an unexpected way with another of our loudest national debates – the one about how much and in what ways Vladimir Putin’s Russia is interfering in the domestic politics of the U.S.  Conservatives have charged that Russia has ploughed millions of dollars into anti-fracking campaigns in the U.S. and other western nations.

That charge, if true, may give anti-fracking activists and the Trump administration some common ground, after all.