Opinion: Why Americans hate fracking but love cheap gasoline

Loren Steffy
Loren Steffy
Opinion by Energy Voice

During the holidays, a friend was driving home and said she spotted a fracking well soon after she crossed into Texas.

She wasn’t happy about it. Another friend posted on Facebook a picture of gas prices below $2 a gallon — something that hasn’t happened in more than five years — and commented that the low price made him feel as if “he was stealing something.”

In America, the world’s largest energy-consuming nation, the biggest fractures occur not in deep underground shale formations but in the way we separate our perceptions of energy from reality.

First of all, I suspect my friend spotted a drilling rig.

I doubt she could tell whether it was engaged in hydraulic fracturing or conventional drilling. Fracking has become an environmental cause celebre, but in most cases, the opposition is to drilling in general, or to the use of fossil fuel, rather than to the extraction process known as fracking.

But the bigger problem is that my friend drove halfway across the country — almost 1,000 miles — and then complained about fracking.

Last summer, I wrote about an environmentalist who drove five hours to vacation on the eastern shore and then decried a proposal to open the area to offshore drilling.

We Americans want our cheap energy, we just don’t want to see it being produced.

Even as people bemoan fracking’s proliferation, they seem unwilling to recognize that the increased drilling led to lower pump prices, which generated $14 billion in savings for consumers last year compared with 2013, according to a recent report by the American Automobile Association.

The average price for a gallon of unleaded gasoline is now $2.19, the lowest price motorists have paid since mid-2009.

Less than a year ago, gasoline prices at the pump were rising, and consumers were complaining about oil companies gouging them.

Yet now that prices have fallen precipitously, no one thinks oil companies or their fracking activities deserve the credit.

Nor does the average motorist draw a link between their own consumption and the production needed to meet it.

When I speak to environmental groups, I often ask how many people in the audience carpooled to the meeting. Typically few do.

Sometimes I ask if their club rules require them to carpool to meetings.

I have yet to find one that does.

The point is that we need to change our thinking about energy consumption and the costs associated with it.

Many in the US hate fracking without even understanding what it is.

Any link to earthquakes at this point is circumstantial at best and in need of further study, yet the anti-fracking crowd already accepts the connection as proven fact.

So, it’s little wonder that after an unusual string of nine minor earthquakes shook Dallas last week [Jan 6 & 7], many residents were ready to blame fracking.

Obviously, if fracking is found to contribute to seismic activity, the industry should be required to curtail the cause.

But at the same time, highways in Dallas and most other American cities are getting more congested, not less.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently banned fracking in the state, yet pollution continues to belch forth from the crowded streets of Manhattan.

The state continues to enjoy cheaper heating costs as it imports natural gas, produced by fracking in neighboring Pennsylvania.

In some ways, it’s the latest twist on the old “not in my back yard” argument. People want the benefits of fracking, but they don’t want it done near them.

They also want cleaner fuels without having to pay more for them or to sacrifice reliability.

A recent Harvard survey conducted over 12 years found that Americans “overwhelmingly” want their energy to come from wind and solar.

“They’re way too optimistic about [the cost of] solar and wind, and the caution is that if you inform them, you’re going to get lower support” Harvard government professor Stephen Ansolabehere, who conducted the survey, said in a recent speech at he University of Chicago.

Perhaps that’s why we prefer to view lower pump prices as disconnected from fracking. We’d rather not deal with the complicated reality that we can’t have one without the other.

No one likes to see drilling equipment marring pristine landscapes, but we need to understand why they’re there. Far from stealing anything, we’re paying for it, one way or another.

Loren Steffy is a managing director with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies. He is a writer at large for Texas Monthly, a contributor to Forbes and the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship. Follow him on Twitter: @lsteffy; on Facebook or at lorensteffy.com.