Since 2008, the United States has become the world’s leading producer of oil and gas, largely due to advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process, which involves using high-pressure chemicals to break into hard-to-reach underground deposits, boomed under both the Barack Obama and the Donald J. Trump administrations, drawing pushback from environmental activists.
As President-Elect Joe Biden attempts to balance his commitments on climate change with his support of fracking, the experiences of other countries could be instructive.
What were the Trump administration’s policies on fracking?
Trump has sought to capitalize on the fracking boom, pursuing a deregulatory agenda to “unleash American energy,” rolling back Obama-era rules, and expanding drilling rights on federal land.
His administration leased four million acres of federal land for fossil fuel production. It offered almost as many acres for drilling in four years—around twenty-five million—as the Obama administration did in eight.
Like his predecessor, Trump has relied on executive powers to push energy policies. He signed an executive order [PDF] in 2017 rescinding a rule that regulated fracking on federally administered lands. Two years later, he ended a five-year moratorium on leasing public land for oil drilling and fracking in central California, overriding Governor Gavin Newsom’s policy. Further unraveling Obama-era climate regulations, Trump eliminated a rule requiring oil and gas companies to limit their emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that can be released during the extraction process.
Trump argues that such regulations encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation. For him, the goal is energy independence, as fracking has decreased U.S. dependence on oil and gas from abroad.
Will Biden ban fracking?
No, it does not appear that Biden will ban fracking outright. Instead, he says he wants to “gradually move away” from it.
Since natural gas is up to 40 percent more carbon efficient than oil or coal, Biden argues that fracking is still a step forward until renewables are more widely adopted. As vice president and as a presidential candidate, he supported the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy, which helped spur the fracking boom.
At the same time, Biden has called for banning new permits for oil and gas projects on federal lands and waters. The move would be stronger than efforts by Obama, who tried to require companies operating on federal lands to disclose which chemicals they use in the fracking process and regulate their wastewater disposal. (A judge struck down his regulations, arguing that Congress had not authorized federal regulators to set rules on fracking.) Biden is also poised to reinstate limits on methane emissions loosened by Trump.
The views of top administration officials are mixed. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who will be Biden’s climate envoy, has previously supported fracking. On the other hand, Vice President–Elect Kamala Harris favored banning it during her primary campaign.
How are other countries addressing fracking?
Alongside the United States, only Canada, China, and Argentina extract enough shale gas and oil to market them. Although some of these countries have taken steps to regulate or ban the practice, few have an experience comparable to the United States. How the Biden administration regulates fracking will likely be uncharted territory.
Canada is perhaps most similar to the United States in that it possesses some of the world’s largest deposits [PDF] of shale oil and gas. Fracking is legal in most of the country, though some provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Quebec, have banned it over environmental concerns and opposition from indigenous groups. But given that Alberta produces most of the country’s oil, these restrictions haven’t significantly hindered overall production.
In Australia, the Tasmanian government extended its moratorium on fracking from 2020 to 2025. And in Western Australia, 98 percent of land is protected from fracking due to strict regulations, including those that prohibit fracking within two kilometers of public drinking water sources, towns, and national parks. The government there also set up a fund that will use net royalties from fracking to support clean energy projects.
Many countries in the European Union, meanwhile, have severely restricted fracking, despite the bloc’s lack of alternatives to imported Russian energy. A few countries, such as Bulgaria and Germany, extended moratoriums on fracking or banned it. France and Ireland—which banned fracking in 2011 and 2017, respectively—have taken steps to limit imports of U.S. fracked natural gas. But that could change if the Biden administration promises to reduce methane emissions, making U.S. gas shipments more appealing to European nations.