Should Cities Ban Fracking?

It’s complicated.

A hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Penn.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Twelve years ago, the International Energy Agency predicted increased U.S. imports of natural gas and oil. This year, it claimed the United States will soon be a net exporter of natural gas and oil. Why the change in outlook? The United States figured out how to tap its unconventional energy resources by blasting chemical-laced water into “hydrocarbon kitchens” deep underground—a process you probably know as fracking.

But the United States has not figured out how to regulate this new era of fossil fuel extremism. Exemptions, trade secrets, and nondisclosures have allowed profit-making to proceed without adequate monitoring. At the state level, the same agency is often responsible for both regulating and promoting mineral development. The Texas Rail Road Commission’s first priority is to get minerals out of the ground. Commissioners survive on campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and host Facebook pages that openly demonize the EPA. Texas’ inspectors are each responsible for more than 1,000 wells, and in 2010 nearly 140,000 out of 260,000 wells in the state went uninspected.

With a vacuum of leadership from the top, cities and towns have sought to fill the void. But they face a thorny question: What rules could make fracking compatible with the health, safety, and welfare of those who live nearby?

In the movie Promised Land, due out in theaters soon, a small town tears itself apart over this question. For more than two years, my home of Denton, Texas, has been acting out this script in real life as it rewrites its drilling ordinance. I have attended umpteen city council meetings in which I use my three-minute public comment to make wonkish analyses of the 54-page ordinance that is now in its fifth draft. I tend to say things like: “Section 35.22.5.A.2.p.i should have the phrase ‘if this is infeasible’ removed.” It’s really dry stuff.

At these meetings, there are always Denton “fracktivists” demanding a ban. They have read aloud a short story featuring Denton citizens besieged by a greedy corporate Grinch. They have equated fracking with terrorism. One student donned a mask to personify death and thanked the city council for allowing fracking to claim more souls for the underworld. Say what you will, but that is not dry.

This is the divided heart of the anti-fracking movement. Pragmatists working to reform the system, idealists to eliminate it. The former accused of being unprincipled, the latter impractical. This schism in American environmentalism is rooted in the broken friendship of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. When Pinchot said in the early 1900s that damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley was its highest use, Muir shot back: “[N]o holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man.”

I loved reading Muir when I was in college, and I had no doubt that Pinchot was a feckless weasel. Muir would have written his own anti-fracking literature—although he would have done so from atop a Giant Sequoia in a thunderstorm. His American romanticism galvanized my early, nameless worries about the planet. You can imagine my horror when sitting in council chambers I was visited by the sickening thought: “My God, I’ve become Pinchot!”

Like Pinchot seeking to harmonize dams and valleys, I have been trying to harmonize fracking and communities. I assumed there is some answer to the question about which rules would make fracking compatible with city life. That’s what I keep hunting for in thickets of legalese. But I have to admit that I don’t know what those rules would look like. And that might be because they don’t exist.

That, anyway, has been the answer offered by a growing list of cities and towns that have banned fracking. In November, Longmont became the first city in Colorado to join the list. Its charter amendment is a simple one-page document.

But here is where the impracticality comes in: Longmont is being sued. The city is likely to lose. Not only will this cost them lots of money, but it may set a bad precedent for other cities seeking more cunning ways to use local control to curtail fracking in their jurisdiction. Many industry-friendly state representatives are hoping for this kind of excuse to push through an agenda that would further erode municipal sovereignty.

OK, maybe this is just spineless litigiphobia. Fracking bans are about principle, not calculation. I think this is a false dichotomy, but set that aside and ask: What is the principle here?

I just keep thinking local fracking bans are less ideal and less principled than they seem. To start, I should separate Muir from this discussion, because calls for a ban single out fracking as a mode of production, not consuming as a mode of life. In general, folks want to ban fracking but keep their air conditioners. They are not interested in roughing it in Yosemite. This sounds less like idealism than technology policy. And the most plausible world-without-fracking scenario would feature more coal, which means more mercury, fly ash, sulfates, and mountain-top removal. Less than ideal. Or we could ban coal, too, which would mean higher energy prices and less reliable power.

Longmont made no mention in its ban about refusing to accept natural gas produced elsewhere. This starts to sound like hypocritical NIMBY-ism. Will towns that ban fracking still accept electrons generated from gas pulled out of the ground near my house in Denton? If so, how is that a principled idealism?

Further, a ban cannot be the right thing just because it is the will of a majority. Majorities have a sordid history of willing bad things. We permit, with regulations, all sorts of industries and private property uses. We think local fracking bans are what “democracy looks like,” but we don’t even think about democracy when gas stations invade “our” towns. So is this a principled position that can be generalized or does it just discriminate against one industry for no particular reason?

The usual retort is that “safe fracking is an oxymoron” or that “no amount of regulation can make fracking safe.” But the same could be said about nearly any technology. Flu shots are mostly safe but still carry some inherent risks. So do electricity, lawnmowers, airplanes, processed foods, and pharmaceuticals. So does driving. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 34,000 people were killed in automobile accidents in 2009. Last month Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon sponsored a billboard on a New York freeway that reads: “Imagine There’s No Fracking.” If Ono and Lennon care most deeply about safety, then maybe they should have us “imagine there’s no freeway.”

We have not banned driving, despite its being inherently dangerous, because safety is not the only thing we value. We also like to go on road trips and haul stuff around. The idealist mantra of “inherently unsafe” is too simplistic to do justice to the ecology of goods involved in fracking. Of course if safety was the only value to consider we should not do it. But people want energy, we generally ought to defend private property rights, and the industry creates jobs, pays royalties, and generates tax revenues. Opportunity costs are real costs. When we ban a technology we lose out on the good as well as the bad.

Fracking is inherently unsafe—that’s why I have spent countless hours fighting for stricter rules. The question I want answered is: What makes fracking more dangerous and unmanageable than all the other industrial activities we permit with regulations?

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.