To Reduce The Debt, Let Energy Lead The Way

Kevin Palmer Senior Writer, Franklin Center
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Just about everyone realizes that the national debt — now over $17.5 trillion — is a ticking time bomb that threatens the economic stability of the United States, but very few so-called thought leaders are proposing solutions for tackling the debt outside of raising taxes and cutting spending. Although wasteful spending certainly needs to be curtailed drastically, there’s a third method of reducing our debt: stimulating economic activity that creates jobs and keeps more of our dollars here at home.

One of the most promising resources for creating jobs and expanding commerce is sitting right below our feet — one to four miles below, to be specific. The United States is sitting on over 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the most efficient and cleanest-burning of the three fossil fuels. For most of history, natural gas has been more difficult to extract than coal and oil, but new technologies like hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) have made previously untappable energy reserves accessible for development. By embracing technology and allowing businesses to invest in energy exploration, America can ride the wave of a potentially massive energy boom to new levels of prosperity.

The benefits of natural gas as a fuel — for heating homes, generating electricity, and as a raw material — are far-reaching, but Americans should be particularly intrigued by the effect that natural gas fracking is already having on local and state economies in gas-rich regions throughout the country. Fracking as an economic solution makes sense on all levels, and in states like North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and others where the government has taken a common-sense approach to natural gas development, Americans are reaping the benefits. Unfortunately, the environmental lobby is halting progress in California and New York, and the Obama administration seems more concerned with assuaging radical green interests than improving the nation’s fiscal health.

North Dakota has been at the center of the fracking boom, and now boasts the lowest unemployment rate and sixth-highest per capita income in the nation. In large part because of the money fracking has infused into the state’s economy, North Dakota in is better fiscal health than nearly every other state. Natural gas development is also helping to shake the rust off states stricken by industrial decline — counties in Pennsylvania with fracking wells are balancing budgets that had been millions in the red, and have so much surplus money that they’ve been able to slash property taxes for families.

The economic impact of fracking has been most direct at the local level, but it’s also proven that energy production and long-term economic health go hand-in-hand. Fracking creates jobs — in agricultural and industrial communities hard-hit by the recession, and in “boomtowns” like Williston, ND, that have attracted people looking for work from across the country. All in all, tens of thousands of Americans owe their jobs directly to fracking, and over one million more hold jobs supported by the economic activity fracking generates.

Every job created by fracking means one more American earning a salary, spending money, and paying taxes, and one fewer American collecting unemployment from the government. This is the tried-and-true formula for debt reduction — the greater the ratio of people paying into the system versus people collecting, the sounder our fiscal situation will be. And among job-creation initiatives, fracking is particularly enticing, because it doesn’t require the government to do anything except stand out of the way. Natural gas development is driven by entrepreneurs and businesses taking risks, not by stimulus spending that only drives the debt higher.

The money generated by the burgeoning fracking boom won’t by itself pay down the $17.5 trillion national debt, but it’s a step in the right direction at a time when our country is searching for answers. Smart, pro-growth policies that strengthen the economy will cause the debt to shrink organically, reducing the amount of cuts that will be needed to eliminate it. Politicians — from the White House to state legislatures — need to listen to the numbers instead of fringe environmentalists, and set policies that promote responsible natural gas development.

Kevin Palmer is a Senior Writer at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity