Elizabeth Warren's fracking ban pledge shows a 'total lack of understanding,' oil guru Yergin says

Key Points
  • Elizabeth Warren has pledged to put a "total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands" and "ban fracking everywhere" on her first day in office.
  • Opponents of fracking, the fossil fuel extraction process that has catapulted the U.S. to becoming the world's largest producer of oil, have sounded the alarm over its negative environmental impacts.
  • Natural gas mining and extraction employs more than 162,000 workers in the U.S.
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Elizabeth Warren against fracking shows a 'total lack of understanding': IHS Markit

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — One of the energy industry's most prominent experts is flabbergasted at Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren's promise to ban fracking if elected.

"The notion just to say I'm going to stop fracking, it is like this all-encompassing term — what are you talking about? I mean really, what are you talking about?" Dan Yergin, the vice chairman of IHS Markit and founder of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates asked during the annual Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference (ADIPEC) on Monday.

"If she's in the lead then I think that becomes a factor that hangs over oil," the market veteran and oil historian told CNBC's "Capital Connection."

"In the U.S., oil production is primarily regulated by the states but there is so much that the federal government can do with a thousand cuts of regulation and so forth … and to just say she's against fracking shows a total lack of understanding."

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"And by the way, this has been one of the most dynamic parts of the U.S. economy — you're talking about millions of jobs," Yergin added. "This is just some notion, and they're not even able to explain what they don't like about fracking."

Warren and her supporters — and environmentalists as a whole — would disagree. In September Warren, who is a close contender for the top spot on Democratic polls, pledged to put a "total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands" and "ban fracking everywhere" on her first day in office.

The Massachusetts senator has put combating climate change at the top of her list of campaign promises, and a growing number of American voters, particularly millennials, rate the issue as a key concern. Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have made similar pledges.

Opponents of fracking, the fossil fuel extraction process that has catapulted the U.S. to becoming the world's largest producer of oil, have sounded the alarm over its negative environmental impacts including air and groundwater pollution and increasing earthquake risk.

But the fracking industry is supported by a wide range of interests, not least the U.S. economy and national security, industry analysts argue.

International Energy Agency Director Fatih Birol in September told CNBC that a fracking ban "would have major implications on the market for the U.S. economy, for jobs growth and everything," and was "not good news for energy security, because U.S. natural gas provides a lot of security to the markets."

"Up to recently, before the U.S. shale gas revolution, Russia was the country which was dominating alone the gas markets," Birol also said. "With the U.S. coming into the picture, there is a choice, there are options for the consumers, better for energy security, for diversification."

Fracking and American jobs

Natural gas mining and extraction employs more than 162,000 workers in the U.S., according to 2019 figures from the Energy Futures Initiative and the National Association of State Energy Officials. More than 625,000 Americans work in the wider natural gas industry.

Fracking advocates say it vastly expands natural gas supply — a cleaner fuel than crude oil — and cuts costs for consumers. Unsurprisingly, at Abu Dhabi's flagship oil and gas industry conference, discussions on the practice tended to be favorable.

Protesters gathered out front of the Colorado Supreme Court Building to protest fracking before hearings on local communities and fracking on Wednesday, December 09, 2015.
Cyrus McCrimmon | The Denver Post | Getty Images

But increasingly part of the conversation is the need to clean up the procedure and extract gas in a way that doesn't degrade the surrounding environment. Industry leaders say they're looking at ways to curtail some of fracking's negative effects, such as the release of methane gas into the atmosphere.

"That's very much on the agenda, particularly methane and I think we've seen the industry and large companies moving in that direction," Yergin said.

But he repeated his criticism of the idea of doing away with the practice, stressing its role as a boon to the U.S. economy and its position in the global energy game.

"Ben Bernanke said after the financial crisis that the shale revolution in the U.S. is one of the most positive things that has happened to the U.S. economy since 2008," Yergin added, citing the former Federal Reserve chairman. "And it affects every state, it affects manufacturing, it's business investment ... and it's millions of jobs."

Yergin then went on to the broader topic of America's rise to the world's top oil-producing nation, putting an emphasis on the country's evolving position relative to the global energy community thanks to the shale boom for crude.

"Suddenly to have the U.S. as this 12 and a half, 13 million barrels a day player, that changes the dynamics of the market. That changes the psychology of the market, and certainly has an effect on psychology in this (Middle East) region."