March 13, 2013

Voices from the Field: What the Frack?

I recently set out to learn more about the process of fracking, with an interest in the risks and the mitigation of risks, as well as the national security implications of America’s potential natural gas glut. 

While there are innumerable diagrams and images available online from a variety of sources detailing the process, I did not find any clear, coherent messaging from government and industry entities.  So, I turned to a 2010 documentary titled “GasLand” where director Josh Fox appears to go to great lengths to paint fracking in the least optimistic light, climaxing with a scene in which he lights methane-laced tap water on fire as it streams from a rural Pennsylvania man’s faucet.  Immediately after watching “GasLand,” I watched “FrackNation,” which originally aired on AXS TV in January 2013, by director Phelim McAleer specifically aimed at debunking the myths professed in “GasLand.”  At the end of half a day in front of the television, I had more questions than I had answers.

Seeking clarity, I attended two recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) panel discussions on the topic of unconventional natural gas featuring Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the first and representatives from industry, environmental, and technology in the second.  Consistent among all participants was a willingness to find common ground to ensure “affordable, abundant, clean, diverse, and secure energy” as Senator Murkowski put it.  As for regulation, there appears to be consensus, or near consensus, that regulatory responsibilities should largely lie with the states and that federal regulations should focus on disclosure, transparency and audit requirements. 

It became apparent to me that one of the key issues facing all the participating parties in the tight oil and shale gas revolution is messaging.  There is a lot of common ground that exists and coordinated, co-endorsed messaging can go a long way to communicate to the populace.  The benefits, risks and risk mitigation strategies should be discussed and common ideas and solutions communicated by the consortium of environmental, industry and technology sectors.  Special interest groups certainly have a role to play as they can apply pressure for transparency of information.

A major challenge to coordinated messaging, at least on the production side, is that there are 300 different producers representing 75 percent of the production and over 1000 producers total, as one CSIS panelist stated.  It is nearly impossible to speak in a coordinated and coherent manner when there are so many cooks in the kitchen.  Industry consolidation will likely occur naturally over a period of time.  This consolidation cannot come soon enough from a messaging perspective. 

So why is this important?  Whether the United States moves to energy self-sufficiency or even further to become a net exporter of natural gas, the global energy-based geopolitics is changing.  America’s relationships and actions in the Middle East, rebalance to Asia and overall global footprint may be affected by the Western Hemisphere’s growth in the recovery and production of natural gas and tight oil.  By some estimates, the United States has 100 years or more worth of recoverable natural gas which is (potentially) a game changer.  While important, the potential tight oil take is only approximately 24 billion barrels, by some estimates, equating to a little more than 3.5 years worth of oil if the United States stopped all oil imports at the current pace of crude consumption.  However, as a supplement to foreign oil, our tight oil capacity could last several decades.

From a national security perspective, this glut of domestic energy can be a real catalyst. However, the lack of transparency can lead to a lack of public confidence, which can ultimately threaten to upend the entire energy boom.  From basic infrastructure to the transportation industry to fueling our military vehicles, aircraft and ships, these new energy sources can completely change the paradigm of how we support the interests of the United States, foreign and domestic.  There is an urgent need for clear and coherent messaging.

CDR Mikeal Staier, USCG, is a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views presented here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Coast Guard or the Department of Homeland Security.

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