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The Shale Revolution

Southwestern Energy Gives Tour During Fracking Stimulation
Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg
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Even big oil companies say solar and wind will be the energy of the future. But while we wait, the energy of the present is being transformed — for better and for worse — by technologies that unlock fuel from underground rocks known as shale. A tsunami of oil and gas from the technique called fracking has made the U.S. the world’s biggest producer of both, giving the country the energy independence its leaders have sought for decades and upending the geopolitics of the world energy trade. At the same time, fracking has generated environmental concerns in communities where it’s practiced and provoked a broader debate about whether it’s a good or bad thing for the planet: While new supplies of cleaner natural gas are speeding the decline of coal in some places, there are fears that the shale revolution will extend the world’s reliance on the other fossil fuels, key drivers of climate change.

U.S. oil and gas output has surged 57% over the past decade, largely thanks to shale-rich areas such as the Permian Basin, which stretches from Texas to New Mexico and alone pumps more oil than most OPEC nations. That has enabled the world’s largest economy to export fossil fuels at a pace unthinkable only a few years ago. U.S. crude exports in the first half of 2019 averaged 2.9 million barrels per day, almost 1 million more than in the first half of 2018. America’s new dominance undercuts OPEC’s ability to push up prices by trimming output. And it creates a potent diplomatic weapon, allowing the U.S. to impose aggressive sanctions on oil exports from Iran and Venezuela knowing domestic crude will keep flowing. Relatively cheap shale gas has helped the U.S. cut its use of coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, by almost 40% since 2008. What’s more, American gas is now available on world markets, thanks to a process that enables it to be super-cooled into liquefied natural gas and transported via ship. China’s purchases of LNG have eased its dependence on coal as well. In late 2019, fracking activity in the U.S. began to slow as drillers responded to investor demands to throttle spending. Canada is the only other country to thoroughly embrace shale extraction. It’s slowly spreading to Argentina, Australia, China and Saudi Arabia. The enormous amounts of water it requires are a limitation in many places. Fracking faces bans or opposition in numerous countries, including the U.K., where the government has placed a moratorium on new permits. In their campaigns to become the Democratic Party’s candidate for the 2020 U.S. presidential race, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have promised to ban fracking.