Where oh where does Joe Biden stand on fracking?
The question is of great significance due to fracking’s scope and resultant economic impact. Fracking has been the primary driver of the U.S. energy renaissance. Since the late Bush years, when dependency on foreign oil cast an omnipresent pall over Washington, unconventional drilling in oil and gas plays across America have flipped the script. U.S. production of oil and gas has essentially doubled in a little over a decade.
Once an obscure technique, fracking now contributes nearly two-thirds of all U.S. crude oil production. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that in 2019, more than 7.75 million barrels of crude oil were produced by fracking the United States each day. The outcome of this production windfall is that the United States is now the world’s top oil-producing country. The importance of fracking to the natural gas boom has been even more profound, and the commodity has enabled the U.S. to emerge as a net-energy exporter for the first time in 50 years.
It would not be an overstatement to say that American fracking has reshaped the global energy landscape, delivering affordable oil and gas for homes, transportation, and industry both domestically and abroad. While just over a decade ago high gasoline prices and concerns about foreign oil dependance prompted a panic, over the last five years Americans have seen prices at the pump remain lower in inflation-adjusted terms than at any time since before the 1970s oil crisis. Cutting off almost two-thirds of our oil production would leave Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s two largest oil producers — not exactly a win geopolitically. And it should go without saying, but a fracking ban’s direct effect on prices and the second-order consequences that would ripple through the American economy would be dire.
Americans are thus justified in their concern over Joe Biden’s fracking ban flirtation. Biden has given oil and gas producers, employees, and consumers (i.e., all of us) plenty to fear since the beginning of the 2020 election cycle. His remarks, and reversals, are worth cataloguing.
In the Democratic primaries, the former Delaware senator and vice president found himself caught up in an anti-fossil fuel furor. Seemingly egged on by hardliners like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden regularly bumbled his way through answers when asked about fracking and the use of fossil fuels more broadly. Consistently, however, he voiced opposition to the drilling technique, indicating on multiple occasions that he would aim to end it.
In July 2019, for example, CNN host Dana Bash asked Biden, “Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?” He replied, “No, we would — we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated.”
In March 2020, Biden engaged in a lengthy energy conversation with Sen. Sanders and a debate moderator Jake Tapper. Asked about his oil and gas plan, Sanders said, “I’m talking about stopping fracking as soon as we possibly can. I’m talking about telling the fossil fuel industry that they are going to stop destroying this planet — no ifs, buts and maybes about it.” At which point Biden interjected, “So am I.”
Later, Sanders, frustratedly attempting to differentiate his position from a more permissive Biden policy, said, “You cannot continue, as I understand, Joe believes, to continue fracking. Correct me if I am wrong.”
But Biden essentially did correct him and toed the Sanders’ line, saying, “No more — no new fracking.”
On the same night regarding oil and gas more broadly, Biden offered: “No more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling, including offshore, no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period, ends.”
And yet in fall 2020 Biden sprinted to the middle on energy, saying in October, “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”
His running mate, Kamala Harris, went on record to the same effect, stating in the vice presidential debate, “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking.” (As Forbes columnist David Blackmon notes, Harris was careful to stress that Biden would not ban fracking, leaving open her own avenue to a fracking ban, should she at any point succeed her boss. Harris said in summer 2019 that there was “no question” she favors a fracking ban.)
With Biden now set to become the 46th president of the United States, what can we really expect? Difficult though he has made it for us, when separating the wheat from the Biden gaffe chaff, an outright ban looks highly improbable. Most recently, Biden has said unequivocally that he won’t ban fracking, and for now we’ll take him at his word — call it the Biden naskh principle.
More importantly, without the support of Congress such definitive action will not be possible, even if the White House willed it.
But that does not mean Biden won’t act to stop oil and gas.
What’s more likely than a fracking ban is that Biden will use the power vested in the executive branch to severely curtain the productivity of oil and gas on federal lands and waters by slowing new leases and permits to a trickle. On leasing, expect Biden to revert to the Obama-era playbook by which federal agencies simply kept parcels off the market despite statutory expectations. Even if it’s illegal, the practical effect is that until it is adjudicated, it will result in a leasing moratorium. On permitting for land already leased, expect a return of bureaucratic sloth. One achievement of the Trump administration was the streamlining of permitting, with the average wait time dropping by more than 50 percent — 108 days versus 257 — compared with those during his predecessor’s tenure. The end result here could very well be that no new fracking takes place on federal lands during the Biden era. That would partially uphold his pledge against the practice while still stopping well short of a ban.
To understand the potential impact of these tactics — what will and won’t change — a review of the numbers is in order. Federal areas make up close to 30 percent of the total U.S. land mass. Federal waters cover even more territory, making the federal estate quite extensive. Nevertheless, federal lands and waters combine to produce only about 25 percent of U.S. oil and 15 percent of U.S. gas. That’s because the most successful oil and gas fields are not in federal areas.
Texas, the country’s most productive energy state (partially due to its size), has comparatively little federal land. Next door, New Mexico has a higher ratio — and has become a magnet for legal action as a result. States like New Mexico would hurt by losses of shared revenue, while other energy states would go nearly unscathed. In a sense, the numbers are heartening, as most of our energy industry lies beyond the reach of a Biden federal lands and waters slow roll.
But while fracking looks like it won’t be the hill Joe Biden is willing to die on, there are plenty of other ways in which his administration can and will hinder our energy economy. The bottom line is that Biden’s vision is incompatible with continued oil and gas productivity. The goals Biden has on paper — carbon-free electricity by 2035 and a carbon-free economy by 2050 — will require an array of tactics ranging from an inflated social cost of carbon to renewable electricity mandates to pipeline blocks. Even if fracking survives for now, in the long run Biden, Harris, and their allies have oil and gas on the chopping block.