Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, ed. The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018. 460 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4513-0.
Reviewed by Matthew J. Smalarz (Manor College)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (September, 2021)
Commissioned by Jeanine Mazak-Kahne (Indiana University of Pennsylvania)
The “Dilemma” of Shale Gas Development on a Global Scale
The public debate over the effects of climate change on our global community demands a closer examination of the shale gas industry’s complicated ascendancy, which has, in just a little over two decades, transformed the trajectory and potential of America’s energy sector while raising questions about the short- and long-term environmental, energy, and economic policy implications associated with its continued development, and nondevelopment, throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. The vast shale gas deposits that permeate rural communities worldwide, stretching from the Marcellus Shale formation in western Pennsylvania to largely untapped shale deposits marked for extraction in South Africa, have generated intense policy debates about the economic, environmental, energy, and regulatory merits and drawbacks of this fossil fuel discovery. Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, employs a “common analytical framework” (p. 8) through which she and her seven fellow co-contributors, whose respective academic backgrounds in economics, political science, and risk analysis afford a refreshing comparative take on the global dimensions of the shale gas “dilemma,” deconstruct the costs and benefits of expanding, or minimizing the potential impact of, shale gas development on a worldwide scale in eight insightfully argued case studies drawn from the University of Pittsburgh Environment and Energy Conference conducted in 2014.
To understand why some countries have embraced, and some have rejected, shale development within their national boundaries, the contributors establish three important benchmarks that form the focus of their study. The first centers on the national conditions, such as economic makeup, climate engagements, and energy profile, that contribute to a country’s potential interest in pursuing shale production, and that influence policymakers’ perspectives on the potential incentives and liabilities that can materialize from shale development. A second component of their study’s methodological framework addresses the national policy discourses and strategies that influence a country’s “decision-making processes” with respect to shale production (p. 10). The final parameter focuses on the comparative dimensions of shale gas policymaking, and why countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America view its potential risks and rewards normally through the variegated lenses of safeguarding the environment, advancing national economic interests, and addressing national energy security needs.
In the book's first section, Gamper-Rabindran addresses the United States’ ascendancy as a shale gas power over the last three decades, chronicling the technological and political framework in which state governments, presidential administrations, and shale operators have capitalized on it while examining the political, economic, and environmental struggles surrounding its “uneven distribution of benefits and costs” (p. 14). She examines how advancements in drilling technology, such as high-volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), motivated state governments, seeking to profit from its economic potential, to pass legislation that would benefit gas firms hoping to drill on privately held lands containing precious minerals important to gas development. While the industry flourished from the late 1990s until 2014, it went bust when firms produced too much gas in 2014-15, forcing many to declare bankruptcy or relocate their operations. Despite the economic vagaries of the shale gas industry, the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations nevertheless embraced its full potential to advance national economic growth and energy security concerns but ultimately differed in their views on its environmental impact: George W. Bush and Donald Trump imposed fewer environmental regulations on shale gas, while Barack Obama deemed it necessary to maintain “an all of the above” energy agenda that would encourage “energy efficiency” and regulate shale’s carbon footprint (p. 48).
Even though the industry is central to future national security and economic priorities, it has subjected, as Gamper-Rabindran notes, many communities in the United States, especially those directly invested in shale gas, to an uneven pattern of costs and benefits, thus necessitating greater levels of effective public policy intervention at the state level to address these issues. While shale gas production has contributed to lower domestic energy prices on a national scale, benefited energy costs for industrial manufacturers, and led to new job creation where shale drilling occurs, many economic and environmental uncertainties—transient workers, few permanent local drilling jobs, and the potential for groundwater contamination—still loom over local communities dependent on its industrial presence. Gamper-Rabindram points to the need for much clearer public policy measures at the state level to resolve growing concerns over the lack of consistent public health, environmental, and safety standards in order to mitigate shale production’s effects on local communities. Moreover, she contends that it is incumbent on federal and state governments to introduce regulatory, taxation, and disclosure policies that can benefit economic and environmental conditions in local communities. But public policy problems persist, for states have either circumvented or rebuffed local governments’ efforts to regulate shale gas or tax shale gas firms at higher rates for the purpose of reinvesting in local communities.
Much like the complex challenges that beset shale production in the United States, the transnational dimensions of the shale “dilemma” have also generated intense, and complicated, political and policy discourses about the merits and drawbacks associated with fracking and its potential merits and drawbacks across the European continent. European national governments—namely the United Kingdom, Poland, France, and Germany—have largely supported extracting recoverable shale resources for energy security and economic growth purposes but have met intense scrutiny from local communities, environmental advocates, nongovernmental organizations, and potential developers regarding its environmental implications and economic shortcomings.
Turning to the United Kingdom, Jim Skea examines how Westminster, mindful of its carbon reduction emissions benchmarks under the Climate Change Act of 2008, has still advocated for shale development, especially in the Bowland Shale situated in northern England, to offset declining oil production in the North Sea and to address the country’s looming energy security needs. But opposition from local activists in Lancashire to Cuadrilla, an independent energy firm in the United Kingdom that undertook exploratory drilling with support from the government, intensified in 2013 when it became clear that road safety standards would diminish if the company pursued gas exploration throughout the region. The contentious manner in which this protest unfolded further illustrates the divergent energy security priorities of the British government and the environmental and safety concerns of local English communities directly affected by hydraulic fracking.
In contrast to staunch opposition to fracking in certain regions of Britain, Michael Labelle illuminates the Polish government’s failed efforts, despite widespread initial support for shale development at the grassroots level following the discovery of vast shale deposits in 2011, to overcome bureaucratic and geological hurdles to bolster the country’s energy resources and reduce its dependence on Russian oil over the last twenty years. Poland quickly attracted outside developers to extract and develop its immense shale resources but lost support from potential investors after it failed to finalize key tax procedures, resolve geological impediments to shale development, and clarify the exploratory licensing process by 2016. What further complicated the Polish government’s approach to shale development was the “lack of clear communication on shale development—on roads and water pollution, for example—and about regulatory procedures” (p. 195).
France and Germany, arguably the European Union’s most influential voices in the climate change debate, have also recognized the economic and energy benefits that could accrue from shale production within their territorial boundaries but have largely heeded critiques from local and environmental activists who worry about the physical, economic, and carbon impacts that could result from drilling. Patrice Geoffron explores the inherent “paradox” at the heart of the French national debate over shale gas by pointing out how the country’s “significant reserves of unconventional fossil fuels,” which are scattered throughout the Paris Basin, southern and northern France, have only elevated French citizens’ opposition to developing new carbon-emitting fossil fuels, despite their potential economic benefits (pp. 205-206). The country’s commitment to a low-carbon emissions strategy, which entails gas imports, a reliance on nuclear energy, and closing all coal power facilities by 2022, has inspired local residents to oppose any national shale gas strategy that would enrich the state, which maintains underground property rights where the shale gas exists, at the economic and environmental expense of nearby communities.
Germany’s energy situation, as Miranda Schreuers’s chapter documents, both parallels and differs from France’s energy debacle in that its political leadership recognizes the country’s dependence on imported gas, largely from Russia through the Nordstream pipeline, necessitates finding energy alternatives—part of which form Energiewende, a transitional renewable energy strategy—that could lessen its reliance on Russian oil, to maintain its commitment to achieve a low carbon footprint. Compared to France, a larger wellspring of opposition to hydraulic fracking exists at both the federal level, which passed a law in the German parliament in 2016 banning all forms of the drilling practice with some exceptions, and the state, or Lander, level, where environmental groups, farmers’ organizations, and civil society entities have exerted enormous pressure on state and local legislators and policymakers to either ban or severely restrict it. Both nations’ commitments to renewable energy and achieving a low carbon footprint have largely superseded whatever potential energy security and economic benefits, far greater priorities to both the British and Polish governments, might arise from shale gas development.
Developing economies, which encompass China, Argentina, and South Africa (two of the three are members of the so-called BRICS nations) have embraced shale gas exploration and development, unlike some of their European counterparts, to ameliorate the effects of air pollution (China), reduce their dependence on gas imports (Argentina), promote economic growth (South Africa), and ensure national energy security concerns (South Africa). These three developing countries, however, must still resolve a whole host of political, environmental, regulatory, and local obstacles and shortcomings before they can fully benefit from shale development. Alvin Lin, Maria Saulino, Barry Morkel, and Maarten de Wit demonstrate why formulating stronger dialogues with local communities, nongovernmental organizations, and state/provincial governments must engender more effective public policies aimed at minimizing the costs and accentuating the benefits of shale production in China, Argentina, and South Africa.
Alvin Lin’s chapter on China catalogs the Chinese government’s failure to implement a consistent and transparent regulatory framework that would require shale gas operators, especially in the Sichuan Basin, to meet certain environmental safeguards. The Chinese, who have been heavily dependent on coal and gas plants to maintain energy production capacities, have committed themselves to utilizing shale as a conduit to minimizing their carbon footprint. The Chinese government has responded to environmental critiques from nongovernmental organizations about its lack of transparency on shale firms polluting in local communities, but still maintains rigorous control over how information is disseminated from these shale operators to the public. Lin contends that “China’s strategy of expanding shale operations ... depends critically on the central government’s willingness to give sufficient weight to environmental and social protections in the pursuit of shale development” (p. 296).
Argentina, much like China, has dealt with an array of similar questions about the environmental and health costs of shale development on local communities but must also resolve a number of regulatory, economic, and racial issues unique to its pursuit of shale gas development. Maria Saulino contends that Argentina, which has always exhibited great economic potential but consistently deals with internal political divides impeding its national ambitions, has deemed shale production critical to minimizing its reliance on foreign gas and to addressing internal gas production issues across its energy sector. But clear regulatory guidelines have not been implemented at the federal level in Buenos Aires, prompting some provincial governments, such as Nequen, to implement regulatory measures to steer their communities, which have largely opposed, in the case of indigenous communities, the presence of shale drilling, through the potential enforcement, environmental, and land disputes that might arise from shale development.
Transparency and regulatory problems have also affected shale development in South Africa. Barry Morkel and Maarten de Wit argue that South Africa must resolve its growing energy needs as part of a larger economic strategy, which the South African National Assembly has undertaken, designed to ameliorate high rates of unemployment and poverty throughout the country, especially in Karoo, a region containing a large shale formation. But, much like Argentina, local communities, especially black farmers, and nongovernmental organizations, have vociferously criticized the government and shale operators for failing to adequately examine and regulate shale’s potential environmental impact throughout this part of South Africa. Morkel and de Wit, much like Saulino in her chapter on Argentinian shale development, demonstrate the importance of fostering decision-making processes that directly engage and involve local communities and organizations, which run contrary to the Chinese government’s handling of shale exploration, in any national conversations about shale drilling’s economic, environmental, and health effects.
Gamper-Rabindran and her co-authors successfully navigate the transnational issues, political circumstances, and local conditions that have influenced and contributed to policy discourses critical to the formation of more effective policy measures designed to acknowledge and address the impact of shale gas production on a global scale. Extending local questions about shale production to a global perspective, Gamper-Rabindran convincingly examines why and how the Marcellus Shale formation in western Pennsylvania, moreover, symbolizes the many policy “dilemmas” that have increasingly compelled national legislators, policymakers, shale operators, nongovernmental organizations, and local communities across Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America to assess the costs and benefits of developing shale gas within their territorial borders. While the United States has been at the epicenter of shale gas production in recent years, Gamper-Rabindran unequivocally demonstrates why comparatively analyzing, through eight carefully organized and researched case studies that catalog their respective historical and current policy approaches toward shale energy production and consumption, the regulatory, economic, energy, and environmental dimensions of this complex issue can inspire national governments and interested stakeholders to craft insightful and effective shale gas processes and policies in order to mitigate the lasting effects of global climate change.
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Matthew J. Smalarz. Review of Gamper-Rabindran, Shanti, ed., The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
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