History comes and goes—and so should the shale industry

It’s been almost 10 years since the death of my father, who, when current events were bleak, would instruct me to “take a historical perspective…many things eventually get better.” His childhood memories were of the Great Depression and his last dream was about ice melting in the Arctic. In between, he had many examples to support that belief.

 In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, I’m trying to channel my father’s wisdom. This April also marks 10 years of my employment at Earthworks. When I started “fracking” was a new word, and the push to drill across the Marcellus Shale and Permian Basin was just taking hold. 

The onslaught of drilling and infrastructure has accelerated quickly, and it’s certainly been a bleak decade for frontline residents and the climate.  Yet it’s also been a time of rapidly emerging, irrefutable scientific evidence of oil and gas impacts on health and the environment. There’s now an unprecedented, inspiring wave of climate activism that didn’t exist before. 

At the same time, despite drilling in ever-more places, the oil and gas industry itself hasn’t fared so well. According to a recent review by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), the industry’s penchant for rising debt and declining revenue and cash reserves has spawned a “lost decade” for North America’s shale industry. As indicated in another IEEFA report, in the 1980s, seven of the top ten companies in the S&P 500 stock market index were oil and gas. Today, oil and gas stocks are at the bottom. 

This certainly isn’t the oil and gas industry’s first rodeo in the boom-and-bust arena–but that doesn’t stop them from asking for a bailout and exemption from protective regulations. This despite the fact that some of the industry’s wounds have been self-inflicted, with an insistence on overproduction driving prices down and borrowing up. 

These industry realities were firmly in place even before the current economic slowdown in the wake of the Coronavirus (and the production and price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia). According to a recent analysis by Friends of the Earth, the balance sheets of 27 major fracking companies were bright red even at the beginning of 2020. 

No wonder IEEFA has concluded that, with shale companies increasingly running on fumes, “The truth is undeniable: fracking is a failed experiment.”

 As with all failed experiments, it’s important to first understand and admit what went wrong, and then shift to a new approach. Going forward, the only way to truly safeguard health and the climate is to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and to run our economies and lives on clean, renewable energy. 

Experts are saying that while the current global economic downturn spells trouble for all parts of the energy sector, including renewables, it also offers an opportunity to expand clean energy going forward. Fortunately, such a shift would help address the destabilizing impacts of climate change on the economy. It also holds the promise of more jobs than fossil fuels—just what the nation will need after the coronavirus tragedy passes. 

There’s never been a better time for the story of the “shale revolution” to become one for the history books—and for all of us to look ahead to better times.


WATCH: Earthworks’ Community Empowerment Project Manager Nadia Steinzor reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic, what that means for our work, and what can inspire us as we look ahead.