Post image for Fracking’s Only Drawback: Rampant Rent-Seeking

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I’m a big fan of ‘fracking,’ a.k.a. hydraulic fracturing, the American-made technological miracle in natural gas production that has roughly doubled known North American gas reserves in only the last five years. In previous posts, I’ve defended fracking from nonsensical attacks launched by ill-informed environmentalists. Quite contrary to what the alarmists would have you believe, we’re lucky for the fracking revolution. Not only has it dramatically increased our domestic supply of natural gas, but now it’s being used to extract oil, too, and it could prove just as revolutionary for that industry.

Fracking does, however, have one major drawback: it has caused rampant rent-seeking. While gas supply has exploded, American consumption increased only 9 percent from 2005 to 2010. The sagging economy has further increased this disparity between gas supply and demand. For consumers, this is great, as it should usher in a period of relatively stable, low prices in the historically volatile gas market. For gas producers, it could be great. The low prices should make their product more attractive relative to other forms of energy. In turn, this could lead to whole new sectors of demand.The problem is that a couple major players in the gas industry refuse to wait for market forces to work their magic.  Instead, these impatient industry titans are trying to convince politicians to enact policies that force Americans to use natural gas.

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In a story today about the surging profits of Peabody Energy (a major American coal producer), Climatewire (subscription required) quoted Peabody Chairman and CEO Gregory Boyce as saying that coal is entering a “demand super cycle” due to exploding Chinese growth. According to Mr. Boyce, “China now forecasts that 290 gigawatts of coal-fueled generation will come online from 2011 to 2015.” He calls the demographic trends in China “overwhelming.”

Two quick snap responses:

  1. There’s a silly meme being bandied about by the mainstream media that China is winning some sort of green energy great game with America. In fact, China is building two coal fired power plants every three weeks, while in the U.S., environmentalist lawyers recently celebrated the scuttling of 100 coal fired plants. We are losing an energy game with China, but the prize isn’t green energy. Rather, it’s affordable, reliable energy. They are building it. We aren’t.
  2. Peabody is looking for a west coast port to increase the export of low cost coal from Wyoming to China. That is, China is welcoming the coal our country is spurning. As a result, we are heading towards a future where the U.S. buys expensive green energy from China (because it is cheaper to manufacture there), while China buys cheap coal from the U.S. Guess whose energy future is more promising?