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Fracking: the good, the bad and the ugly

The last few years have ushered in a new national and global awareness of fracking, the 150-year-old technology for extracting natural gas and oil from rock. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, uses ultra-high-pressure slurries to create hairline fractures throughout solid rock. Oil, and more frequently gas, comes rushing out while sand from the mixture holds the fractures open in this nearly alchemical process.

As many readers are aware, there are two very divisive schools of thought on fracking. One side touts it as the future of energy. The other derides fracking as inherently toxic and demands its immediate and permanent cessation. Like so many aspects of life, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The Good

Perhaps the most surprising fact of fracking is that burning the resultant natural gas does, in fact, emit less carbon dioxide than coal or even traditionally extracted natural gas. As carbon dioxide is the most plentiful and troublesome greenhouse gas affecting global warming, fracking could be leveraged to significantly mitigate a major portion of greenhouse gases.

The market effects of fracking have even hit the powerful, carbon-heavy coal industry. The recent glut in gas supply and more stringent regulation of the coal industry from the Obama Administration have already begun to supplant American coal-fired energy plants. Dozens of coal plants around the country are divesting from coal processes in exchange for cleaner natural gas. Offers to extract new coal are apathetically received; one recent auction received no bids for the first time in history. Because coal is the primary carbon dioxide polluter in the world, this is a promising aspect of natural gas that climate change activists must reconsider.

Fracking wellhead in North Dakota. Photo by: Joshua Doubek.

Fracking wellhead in North Dakota. Photo by: Joshua Doubek/Creative Commons 3.0.

From the American point of view, fracking also advances energy independence. Dependent on petroleum-extracting nations for the better part of a century, now, American energy needs are inextricably tied to foreign politics. With enough estimated gas reserves to power the nation for 100 years, American fracking could potentially wean the nation off of foreign hydrocarbon energy, and detangle a large part of the national economy from foreign politics.

Fracking would also result in economic gains, with local workers and families benefiting, as well as investors. American industry would be much more competitive than it has been in years. Cheaper energy would attract investors from abroad, who would be incentivized by the well-educated society and relatively low costs of the United States. Reduced CO2 emissions, increased energy independence and national investment form the bulk of support for fracking.

The Bad

However, while these likely scenarios would benefit millions of families, the pro-fracking rhetoric leaves out serious concerns. The health and environmental impacts of today’s hydraulic fracturing industry put a serious damper on the parade of new gas investments.
The two schools of thought on fracking have been backed by two separate studies of its environmental impacts. The most commonly cited among environmentalists was conducted by Cornell University; the most popular among fracking supporters by University of Texas, Austin, in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund and industry. Both studies examine “fugitive methane,” or methane gas which unintentionally leaks out during extraction, refinement and transportation. Natural gas is, in fact, mostly methane, which is another potent greenhouse gas.

Because fracking is relatively unregulated and a new tool for mass-extraction, there is less pressure to perform by standard environmental protocol. Both the Cornell and UT Austin studies found that unacceptable levels of methane gas escape at various points during natural gas extraction. The Cornell study states that 0.47 percent of total gas extraction escapes, versus 0.42 percent as UT Austin asserts—a margin small enough to chalk up to sampling error.

Depiction of how fracking works. Photo by: Mikenorton/Creative Commons 3.0..

Because methane is a significantly stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it has a much larger impact on global warming per unit. This is where the political friction caused by the studies’ minute difference resides. The Cornell study states that methane counteracts any good brought by decreased carbon dioxide levels, while the UT Austin study states the opposite.

Whether you follow Cornell’s or UT Austin’s results, it is clear that fracking’s mitigation benefits for climate change is negligible as it is currently practiced. Additionally, both studies concede that fracking’s release of methane is much worse over the short-term. This would disproportionately contribute to global warming over a shorter period, having greater effects than if spread out over time.

The Ugly

Even more disconcerting is the localized environmental contamination experienced by area residents. Hydraulic fracturing uses proprietary slurries that can include hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol, aluminum phosphate and 2-butoxyethanol, among other chemicals . Brought to the public’s attention by books, articles and films such as Gasland, the environmental impacts unsurprisingly include polluted groundwater, air and soil.

While the majority of these chemical mixtures are recovered after the fracking process, evidence for contamination is clear. These chemicals—some also used as anti-freeze and harsh cleaning agents—have corrosive effects on mucous membranes, respiratory systems and other basic elements of human biology.

The Potential

The pragmatic question is how to move forward to a more sustainable environment and economy given the current situation. Fracking, as it is currently practiced, is a harmful way of extracting hydrocarbon energy. Additionally, it probably does not decrease overall greenhouse gas emissions. However, if practiced more sustainably, it will be a boon to the low-carbon economy towards which developed countries are already trending.

Massive water consumption is another issue that fracking faces. Here, water tanks are readied for fracking. Photo by: Joshua Doubek/Creative Commons 3.0..

There is incentive for better practices. Pieces such as Gasland gained public traction and helped put pressure on both government and companies to do better by their citizens. There is now a movement towards “dry fracking,” which operates in the absence of chemical slurries. Without these harmful chemicals, the non-invasive extraction process of fracking could become significantly less disruptive than coal extraction.

More importantly, companies are also incentivized to capture the fugitive methane currently neutralizing any net positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Methane extraction is the business of the natural gas industry, and every square foot is valuable fuel. It is in the interest of both company stockholders and the communities in which companies operate to capture even more, if not all, methane that leaks during the fracking process.

While the industry must be curbed to push these policies forward, the incentives to make a more sustainable industry are inherently present. If government and the hydrocarbon extracting industries rein-in pollution and fugitive methane, this may help wean the world off of coal, currently the world’s leading greenhouse gas-producer. As coal-burning power plants shutter their windows or switch to natural gas, the severity of climate change may be stymied. Assurance that this new glut in gas is cleanly produced will require the forceful guidance of regulators and policymakers.

Unfortunately, even if fracking does clean up its act, it is not alchemy, nor a silver bullet to the world’s energy issues. The only thing a cleaner natural gas industry can do is lower global greenhouse gas emissions temporarily. All hydrocarbon-based energy—cleaner natural gas included—emits an unacceptable amount of greenhouse gases. Because hydrocarbon sources are finite, natural gas is not sustainable in the long-run. Fracking is capable of providing a first step towards a more sustainable future by lowering greenhouse gas emissions and global expectations for future emissions. As long as the world remains critical and demanding—as the American public has been in the face of today’s fracking industry—there is hope to slow global warming.

Controversy over fracking is increasingly becoming a global issue. Here is an anti-fracking poster from Spain. Photo by: Public Domain.

Owen Reynolds is an Economist in Washington D.C.


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