Hydraulic fracturing is perhaps the most important innovation in the energy system in the last half century. As a result of this innovation, U.S. production of oil and natural gas has increased dramatically. This has led to abruptly lower energy prices, stronger energy security and even lower carbon dioxide and air pollution emissions by displacing coal. That is certainly good news for our climate, and our health—with large reductions in air pollution dispersed around the country.
But, while there are relatively few coal mines, conventional oil drilling sites and nuclear plants in the United States, tens of thousands of hydraulic fracturing wells have been drilled over the past few years from Pennsylvania to Colorado, Texas to North Dakota. With it being an everyday experience for many Americans, the practice has raised questions about the local impacts. Communities have reached very different conclusions about the benefits and costs, with some places banning it and others embracing it.
Two recent studies have shed light on the impacts. On the benefits side, one study by EPIC Director Michael Greenstone and his coauthors found that fracking increases economic activity, employment, income and housing prices, with the average household benefitting by about $2,000 a year. However, if people’s understanding of the health impacts were to change, it is likely that this would alter the net benefits of allowing fracking. Since health is such a critical factor, Greenstone decided to dig in further by looking at the health of those born near fracking sites. He and his coauthors found that infants born to mothers living up to about 2 miles from a hydraulic fracturing site suffer from poorer health. The largest impacts were to babies born within about a half mile of a site, with those babies being 25 percent more likely to be born at a low birth weight.
The United States’ continued access to the widely-dispersed benefits from hydraulic fracturing depends on local communities allowing it. How should we as a nation balance this challenge? What options do policymakers have at the federal, state and local levels? Join Greenstone and EPIC’s inaugural policy fellows, Jeff Holmstead and Sue Tierney, as they explore these questions and more in a conversation with Axios energy and climate reporter Amy Harder.