Hydraulic fracturing, which is commonly referred to as “fracking,” is a method of oil and gas extraction techniques that helps to quickly access a domestic resource that can be consumed for a variety of purposes. Many of the reductions in fuel costs have come because of the access improvements that fracking can provide.
There is also an argument to be made that the increased consumption of natural fuels could be leading to an environmental disaster. Although fracking has been a boon for many local economies, there is a concern that the short-term decisions made today could have long-term consequences for our planet and future generations.
Several pros and cons of fracking highlight the great divide which exists in this debate. Fracking may have rebooted many local economies, but is the threat of having flammable water coming out of a home faucet a real possibility as some critics may suggest?
Here are some examples to consider.
What Are the Pros of Fracking?
1. Fracking has greatly reduced the need for coal in the United States.
In 2008, about half of the electricity that was produced in the US came from the combustion of coal. Because of fracking, by 2012 just 37% of US electricity was generated by coal. At the same time, natural gas obtained by fracking went up from 20% of the electrical base to 30%. Burning natural gas produces fewer harmful particles than coal, while there have been improvements in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.
2. Technologies exist to capture potential emissions.
Clean coal technologies have helped to pioneer products that can help to capture emissions and particles as they are produced. This makes it possible for fracking and the related energy consumption to be competitive with other resources that are thought to be in the renewable category. For potentially dangerous emissions such as methane, because they tend to use a 20-year measurement instead of a 100-year measurement, the reduction technologies have enormous potential.
3. The real fracking process occurs under most groundwater tables.
Most groundwater supplies are found in the first 1,000 feet of a drilling operation. Although drilling through this layer is classified as part of the fracking process, the real extractions occur much deeper in the ground. When care is taken to insert the casing, steel tubing, and cement, the chemical solutions used for fracking have a barrier between it and the groundwater supply. To contaminate the water above it, the chemicals would need to move upward through a rock layer and this is not believed to be possible.
4. Methane can contaminate groundwater supplies naturally.
If you’ve watched the Gasland films, then the scene of the gentleman from Colorado lighting his tap water on fire is one of the film’s most memorable moments. Although flammable water is often attributed to the fracking process, methane does occur naturally on our planet. Pockets of this gas can contaminate local groundwater supplies when fracking is nowhere near the area. If a well is drilled incorrectly, methane contamination can occur.
5. The Environmental Protection Agency has testified that there are no proven cases of fracking affecting water.
Lisa Jackson, Administrator for the EPA, testified before Congress in May 2011 that fracking has not caused any proven issues of contamination with water supplies. Thanks to advances in drilling technologies, there are several officials who have gone on the record to state that fracking is one of the safest methods of energy extraction that are used today. A 5-year study that was conducted by the EPA has even found that fracking has not led to water contamination.
6. The water intensity used for the fracking process is relatively low.
The water intensity which is used for fracking is lower than it is for virtually any other type of fuel-based power generation. Oil extraction, coal, or nuclear power can use up to 10 times the amount of water that fracking uses for each energy unit that is produced. When fracking is compared to corn-based ethanol, it is 1,000 times less energy-intensive in its water use.
7. Fracking is a temporary process.
Fracking wells are not a permanent process. Every well that is drilled is a targeted operation that has come about because of scouting. Drilling operations eventually cease and a well can operate independently, leaving a minimal presence on the land. Productivity levels for each well are rising too, which means more energy can be obtained for the same or a lower overall cost.
8. It is an extraction process that is stable.
Whenever fracking may contribute to an earthquake, the tremors which are produced are generally minor and not destructive. Tens of thousands of wells have been drilled using the fracking process in the United States and the number of earthquakes that have occurred because of it are believed to be minimal. This suggests that the extraction process of fracking is a stable process that may occasionally trigger an earthquake that would have happen naturally anyway.
9. Much of the fracking process uses natural materials.
Although some chemicals are used for fracking, more than 99% of the materials that are used to create a well are just water and sand. The chemicals which are used tend to be the same items that are used in every home, such as guar gum and sodium chloride.
10. Domestic production through fracking reduces foreign reliance on energy products.
Fossil fuels are a finite resource. Although new pockets of oil and gas are discovered regularly, we cannot always access them with traditional extraction methods. Fracking gives us the opportunity to tap into these resources on a local level and this reduces a country’s dependence on foreign energy resources. This, in turn, makes it possible to maintain a current lifestyle.
11. It allows for a return on an energy investment to occur.
Energy industry stocks are part of many retirement plans, investment accounts, and savings efforts. Fracking in rural areas reduces costs, making it possible for all investors to see a potential return. It also creates jobs, both at the well and in supportive ways, such as in the hotel or restaurant industries. The sites where drilling may occur are often unconventional, but from a financial standpoint, households can profit by investing and through lower overall product costs.
12. Some households see lower property taxes because of fracking.
Fracking in high-use areas can generate millions of dollars in revenues for cities, counties, and states in the US. $7.6 billion in wages were paid in Colorado. Nearly $200 million was received for school districts because of fracking industry property taxes. This collection kept residential property taxes stable and, in some cases since 2001, has even encouraged a reduction in those taxes. Millions have been contributed by the industry for public works, infrastructure, public safety, and more as well.
What Are the Cons of Fracking?
1. The environmental consequences of fracking are not yet known.
There may be air quality improvements that are achieved when transitioned from coal-fired power plants to natural gas, but the actual extraction processes may have consequences we do not yet know. In areas where fracking is widely conducted, such as Colorado, there may be ozone issues that create a new set of health issues for communities.
2. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but not cleaner than most renewables.
The primary argument against renewable energy resources is that they require fossil fuels to be created. When operating, however, solar or wind energy can create electricity without the same particulate contamination of the atmosphere. Natural gas might be cleaner than a coal-fired power plant, but “clean” is a relative term.
3. The fracking process often leaks methane.
Methane is one of the most potent pollutants in our atmosphere today and it is a byproduct of the fracking process. Obtaining oil or natural gas creates a methane leak from under the ground. Distributing the harvested energy resources creates methane leaks all the way down the supply chain. Research from Cornell University suggests that the amount of methane produced by fracking, from start to finish, could negate the benefits that occur from switching to natural gas instead of coal.
4. Lower prices for fossil fuels creates more consumption.
It’s nice to see cheaper prices for home heating and transportation needs. Those lower prices also mean that more fuel is going to be consumed. People drive more when gasoline is cheaper. They set a warmer thermostat in their home (or a cooler one in Summer) when natural gas is cheaper. More consumption means there is a greater potential for environmental contamination.
5. Fracking contaminates drinking water with regularity if left unsupervised.
A study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that high-volume fracking has the potential to contaminate groundwater tables, wells, and drinking water systems. If methane gets into the water supply, there is the potential for a water supply to become flammable. Because of fracking, wells have blown out and this further contaminates drinking water supplies.
6. There is much that is not known about fracking.
Approximately 20% of the chemicals which are used for the traditional fracking process are still considered a “trade secret.” This means the companies using these chemicals do not need to disclose what they are to the public.
7. Fracking can have negative impacts on communities and local habitats.
In the United States, there are more than 15 million people who live within 1 mile of a current fracking operation. Many of them may be property owners, but do not own the oil and gas rights that are underneath their land. This means a fracking operation can be approved on someone’s property without their permission because the company bought the oil and gas rights that are beneath the ground. If there is a large enough supply, the lives of that family could be disrupted for months or years without any compensation.
8. Slurry water can be incredibly dangerous to communities.
The water that is used for fracking is laden with chemicals to encourage the energy extraction process. Many fracking operations will then store this water in an open pit or retention pond. In California, 8 billion gallons of oil were produced through fracking, but 130 billion gallons of wastewater were created to do so. This means 15 barrels of wastewater are created for every 1 barrel of oil.
9. Air emissions from oil and gas waste lack structure.
According to a report from Inside Climate News, the air emissions from oil and gas waste are some of the least regulated in the US are in the states that experience the highest levels of fracking. They are also some of the least monitored and least understood aspects of the production and extraction cycles.
10. The number of small earthquakes in drilling-heavy regions has grown exponentially.
From 1967-2000, there was an average of 21 earthquakes per year in the United States that were 3.0 or greater on the Richter scale in the central and eastern states. Since then, when fracking became a priority in the US, the number of earthquakes at this level have increased by a factor of 4. In 2011, there were 188 earthquakes registered at 3.0 or less. In 2015, there were more than 1,000 earthquakes that the USGS believes were artificially induced. In 2014, a 4.9 earthquake struck in Kansas and was directly linked to localized fracking operation. A 2016 earthquake in Oklahoma registered at 5.6.
11. Fracking-related air pollution creates major health threats.
According to the NRDC, there are several health threats which are created by the fracking process. This includes respiratory problems, nervous system impacts, possible birth defects, blood disorders, and carcinogen exposure. These pollution events are in the highest concentrations for those who live near a well or work at one, but there are also regional and global impacts that must also be considered.
12. A reliance on fracking creates a lack of innovation.
Pursuing new pockets of oil and gas through fracking may allow for households to maintain their current lifestyle, but it also encourages a lack of innovation within the energy industry. When funds are being dedicated to fracking, they are being taking away from potentially cleaner energy resources. In just one day, enough sunshine hits our planet to meet global energy needs for an entire year. In terms of total potential, fracking struggles to make the grade.
13. There are ethical concerns about using water for fracking when drought conditions exist.
The average well that is created through the fracking process will take somewhere between 20 million to 30 million gallons of water to complete. Then multiply those millions of gallons of water by the tens of thousands of wells that have been drilled since 2001. With severe drought conditions striking the world today, using that water for energy instead of irrigation, drinking water, or other needs in dry areas, an ethical question may arise. Is it right to use water in such a way when people or the land is thirsty?
14. Fracking doesn’t just create air or water pollution.
Fracking is a loud operation. Vehicles come into and out of drill sites on a regular basis. Many wells are operated 24/7. When they are being operated near residential areas, it creates noise pollution that can be extensive and disruptive. Those who are closest to these operations could even be at an increased risk for hearing loss over time.
The pros and cons of fracking are divisive and people on both sides of the debate are passionate about these key points. Review each one so you can decide what the merits of fracking happen to be from your perspective.