There is wide agreement among most experts and the public that the current energy sources we use in the United States are in need of a replacement. Reliance on the fossil fuels of coal and oil are problematic for at least two reasons: their negative impact on the environment (both in extraction and their use) and the reliance on supplies of these from other countries, which has created problems on the geopolitical front. Nuclear fission remains a controversial alternative, considering the risks involved in a catastrophic meltdown and the lack of a long-term waste storage solution.
The successful development of horizontal drilling by the energy industry coupled with the existing technology of hydraulic fracturing has been presented as a means to solve both problems at once, providing access to 100 years’ worth of energy in the form of natural gas located within our own borders, albeit thousands of feet below the surface. It was thought that these natural gas deposits, “homegrown” and cleaner-burning than other fossil fuels, could at least buy us some time and be a reliable bridge to future clean energy.
However, in recent years this narrative has come under increased scrutiny as environmental groups, scientists, and average citizens have raised concerns about the true impact of hydraulic fracturing. So the question must be asked: What are the potential economic and security benefits of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, and do they outweigh the negative environmental and health impacts of this practice?
Commonsense, foundational regulation — based on the scientific process and not politics — should be instituted at the federal level to ensure that basic safety and environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing are addressed to encourage further industry innovations while not discouraging further economic investment in our vital natural gas resources. The current buzz surrounding natural gas has occurred for a couple of reasons. First, it has long been understood that natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel. It contains approximately 25% less carbon than oil, and 50% less than coal (McGlynn 1053).
Additionally, unlike coal, there are no heavy metals in its composition (Marsa) so burning it is considerably less toxic. These features made gas naturally attractive to environmental advocates as an alternative to current energy production. But the properties of the gas itself were never, and still are not, viewed as the problem. Initially, the problem was simply that there was not enough extractable natural gas available to comprise a viable alternative to coal and oil. Although the history of drilling for natural gas goes back as far as drilling for petroleum, much of the discovered gas was deemed unrecoverable.
While the U. S. sits on over 60 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves (EIA 4), they are situated under large shale rock formations. Due to the particular properties of shale, natural gas deposits under these formations are very wide and shallow (Marsa). Traditional vertical drilling, while possible, is not cost effective. One well is simply inadequate to extract the necessary volume of gas to turn a profit. It would take dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wells to extract enough natural gas to be useful. In this regard, the industry and the environmentalists were on the same page.
The cost just wouldn’t be worth it. This scenario changed with the introduction of horizontal drilling. With technology adapted from offshore oil rigs, a horizontal drill head can push through shallow gas deposits a mile away from the wellhead. Government and private enterprise partnered to develop techniques for shallow deposit extraction on land. Based on this preliminary work, Mitchell Energy experimented with its use on the Barnett Shale deposit in Texas and their results were copied by others there and along the Fayetteville Shale deposit under Arkansas (EIA 4).
The advent of this development brought with it enormous stakes — that 60 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was now obtainable and represented one hundred years’ worth of energy at current consumption levels (Fracking With Care). The sudden accessibility of this abundant and cleaner energy source was hailed as a eureka moment by government officials, the scientific establishment, environmental groups, and the energy industry that would solve several problems at once. But this was not the complete picture. The last component of this practice to be addressed is the most significant.
While there is no controversy regarding the relative cleanliness of natural gas, and the process of horizontal drilling on its own doesn’t pose any significant risks, it’s the drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, which has been raised as the specter of this industry. So what is hydraulic fracturing? It is the method by which millions of gallons of water, mixed with and sand and assorted chemicals (hydraulic) are injected into drill sites at high speeds with the intent of cracking open the rock (fracturing) and releasing the natural gas inside.
This released gas is then captured for delivery to the energy production infrastructure for use in everything from megawatt generating stations to your home heater. The well, which may run thousands of feet below the surface and a few miles across, is backfilled to prevent instability. Since Halliburton pioneered the practice n the 1940’s (Marsa), the technique has been refined many times over but the basics remain the same. Fracking has been used safely in countless wells across the U. S. with little or no documented problems. So what’s problem?
It is the coupling of the twin practices of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that allows for the extraction of shale-bound natural gas deposits. It is the combination of those techniques along with the inherent properties of the shale and the natural gas bound in the rock that has led to a maelstrom of controversy. Unexplained health problems, contaminated groundwater, mysterious earthquakes, poisonous wastewater, and surprisingly increased carbon footprint have all been linked to the modern practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. What are the facts backing up those claims?
Is fracking hazardous to our health? Before addressing these key questions, the economic and geopolitical benefits of our natural gas bounty should be examined. The economic and political benefits of increased natural gas usage are frequently touted. Since oil imports account for about half of the U. S. trade deficit (Williamson) then any reduction in our reliance on “foreign oil” would certainly have some impact. More significantly, as McGlynn notes “geopolitical turmoil has put foreign sources at risk” (1052). Disruption of these sources, mainly from the Persian Gulf, continues to haunt the foreign policy of the United States.
Our continued dependence on this Middle Eastern petroleum pipeline paints our nation’s administrations in a corner when taking a stand against human rights violations, rigged elections, and other practices to which our democracy is theoretically and rhetorically opposed. Proponents of “energy independence” insist that if only we were to make use of our newly obtainable natural gas resources we could solve both problems at once.
So does increased extraction and production centered on natural gas have the potential to fuel an economic boom in the United States? It has been suggested that it may increase GDP up to 3. percent, the equivalent of $126. 5 billion dollars and “create a million new manufacturing jobs by 2025” (Schacter). And one analyst states that “direct and indirect employment from this economic boom has already surpassed 140,000 jobs” (McGlynn 1065). On a smaller scale, landowners reap the benefit of leasing their property to energy companies for drilling. Some owners living above the Marcellus Shale deposit, covering large portions of New York and Pennsylvania, have negotiated $10,000 leases (Marsa). This is small change for the multi-billion dollar energy industry, but can prove a windfall to households in struggling rural communities.
Clearly the economic benefits are very real, at least in the short term. Opponents of hydraulic fracturing state that these overwhelming positive numbers and single payment lease agreements don’t reflect the true cost in infrastructure and long-term health problems. However, most objections tend to focus on the environmental and health problems which give the singular economic argument additional credence. Although the true extent of the economic benefits are not fully understood, overall it seems that there can be little question as to the positive effect that the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas can have as an economic stimulus.
The geopolitical benefit of shale gas extraction has been considered a given in many quarters and is rarely disputed, even by ardent opponents. To the limited extent that energy policy was an issue in our recently completed election cycle, uttering the phrase “energy independence” was code for increasing our national security. Like many campaign utterances, the details regarding how exactly this independence would be achieved were scanty. For those with some industry knowledge it was clear that hydraulic fracking was part of the equation underpinning this political shibboleth.
However, given our current consumption pattern (not consumption rate) of energy usage, which relies heavily on fossil fuels, there is no path to true energy independence even if we were to exploit every last cubic inch of domestic natural gas available. That narrative was flawed when natural gas was initially promoted by environmental groups and is equally incorrect now. Based on data from the U. S. Energy Information Administration, Moran states that “even with the optimistic assumptions, U. S. oil imports will fall from 8. million barrels a day to about 7. 5 million … in 2035. ” While any reduction in oil imports is beneficial to the mounting trade deficit, a 16% decrease will hardly allow the United States to achieve any meaningful independence from foreign oil. So from a geopolitical standpoint, simply ramping up natural gas extraction and constructing new energy production models based on its inclusion doesn’t solve any of the outstanding issues, it simply reduces the country’s bill at the end of the month.
There are two other basic flaws in the common “energy independence” argument. First, this independence is clearly not a priority under our current circumstances since last year the U. S. was a net exporter of petroleum products (Bigham 7). Given an abundance of a new energy source, our free market system, by design, would sell off the excess of this bounty and thusly our so-called independence would be outsourced. Unless there is a sea change in basic policy our energy will be used, not to boost our autonomy, but to boost profits for the industry.
Second, believing that shale natural gas could provide one hundred years worth of energy depends on a model that assumes no increase in current consumption. While this may be a useful benchmark to understand the volume of available natural gas, it in no way represents the reality of future U. S. consumption. Regardless of whatever the economic or political benefits may potentially be, it is the environmental and health issues surrounding the practice of hydraulic fracking that has drawn protests from activists and some communities.
The most publicized concern has been the contamination of groundwater with methane, a by-product of the natural gas extraction process. Part of the reason for this is the documentary Gasland which featured residents igniting their tap water on fire with lighters due to the high concentration of methane gas. The natural gas industry has responded to these type of events by stating that their process is safe and that methane could not travel through the hundreds or thousands of feet of rock between their horizontal wells and aquifers (Fracking With Care).
They contend that either the groundwater was contaminated prior to hydraulic fracking in the area, or that these were somehow staged (Williamson). Industry proponents commonly cite a 2004 study conducted by the EPA that did not find a connection between drilling activity and contaminated water but this position has since been reconsidered (Marsa). In fact, a preliminary report issued by the same agency indicates that fracking was a likely cause of drinking water in the Wyoming town of Pavilion (Wolfgang). in addition, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection found that faulty concrete well casings were the ause of contaminated water in two townships, which led to a $500,000 settlement for the state and the company installing water treatment systems in the affected households (Tuhus 22).
While it would be unwise to extrapolate from these cases that fracking is always the cause of contaminated water, or even that fracking is likely to contaminate water, they certainly demonstrate that it is possible. The industry claim that their practice is completely safe for nearby residents is deserving of very close scrutiny. The EPA is conducting a major study that will not be available until 2014.
Even more disturbing to some than possible groundwater contamination is the claim that the methane released during the extraction process negates any of the assumed environmental benefits. Although the overall amounts are relatively low, methane has “105 times more warming impact pound for pound than carbon dioxide” (McGlynn 1034) and so a little really does go a long way when it comes to climate change. Not surprisingly, there is wide disagreement on how much methane is being leaked into the atmosphere as port of the fracking process.
In a study at Cornell University, Robert Howarth found that the leak rate of methane was between 4 and 5. 6 percent (Harder). Although industry backers have fielded competing studies that they say completely discredits Howarth’s findings (Schachter) a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has supported his numbers as reasonable. At this point, it is impossible to confirm the true scale of this problem because the release of methane at drilling sites is “largely undocumented” (Harder).
The sad irony of this development is that if the release of methane into the air surpasses the carbon footprint of coal or oil, the very alternative that environmentalists have eagerly pursued will make the problem worse. The wastewater produced as a consequence of the drilling process poses another complication in this complex narrative. A single well may use up to 10 million gallons of water which, after being injected into the well, must be sucked back to the surface and treated. This retrieved water is laden with harmful elements.
The most common concern is that of the unique chemical mixture used to assist the fracking. However, radioactive elements, long sequestered deep within the rock can hitch a ride on water molecules, the effects of which are completely unknown (Marsa). In addition, since many of the rock layers were ancient seabeds, the water also contains astoundingly high concentrations of salt (Williamson), which enough by itself to kill any freshwater fish or animal that drinks it. The treatment of this wastewater is beyond the capabilities of most municipal authorities.
In Pennsylvania, the water is highly regulated and treated in a dedicated facility. Most others states, however, do not have a comprehensive system for dealing with this poisonous fracking byproduct. Although simple noise and sightline pollution pale by comparison to some of these other issues, it is also a problem that many communities face. Fracking With Care says that “thanks to permissive regulations, drillers can put up their rigs … just a few hundred feet or less from property lines subjecting residents to the 24/7 cacophony of a drilling rig or the repellant smells that waft from open pits of chemical-laden water. This problem is recognized by the industry and thus some companies pay residents to go on vacation during drilling (Williamson). However, this gesture doesn’t prevent the devastation of the landscape these homeowners could return home to. Along the Bartlett Shale in Texas, where Mitchell Energy first cracked the shale problem, there now stand over 14,000 wells and many areas have been transformed “into industrial wastelands” by the drilling activity (Marsa). All of these poorly understood and potentially very harmful effects are part of the package that comes with the benefits of hydraulic fracking.
This has led many to the conclusion that federal regulation of some form must be implemented to police this practice. However, the federal government already has rules that protect the water, air, public health and other aspects of the environment, so why would additional laws necessary? Can’t they simply enforce the existing laws? Unfortunately, as Tuhus states, the natural gas and industries are “exempt from major provisions of many federal laws, including… the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act … and the Toxic Release Inventory” (22).
This last one is important because it allows companies to withhold disclosure of the chemicals they use in their fracking mixtures. So it’s fair to say that existing regulation as some holes in it. One objection drillers raise to the specter of environmental regulation on the federal level is that the strata and composition of each site is different, and so requires guidelines tailored to the particular geology of the area. This, they say, is why state regulation is preferred (Williamson).
In this argument, Pennsylvania is held up as the model for commonsense regulation that meets the needs of both the energy industry and its citizens. However, if geology is truly different from Pennsylvania to New York to Ohio to Colorado (spoiler alert: it is) then specific practices that work in Pennsylvania probably won’t work in West Virginia or other states. And since our state lines aren’t really based on the composition of the rock below them, what works in western Pennsylvania may not work in southern Pennsylvania.
Whether at the state or federal level, each site must be treated as unique but that doesn’t preclude the regulators from drafting appropriate guidelines. Not all states have the financial resources, or political will, to develop their own programs to regulate natural gas industries. Poorer states like West Virginia and Arkansas have been particularly hard hit. State regulators are often overwhelmed (Fracking With Care).
McGlynn notes that coping with the impacts of hydraulic fracturing is a major concern for the states. Many lack the resources and environmental staff and are left to deal with the costs of repairs to transportation routes damaged by the industry’s equipment (1063). These states would certainly benefit from mandatory federal rules on the extraction and transportation of natural gas, along with enforcement of these rules – and the cost of said enforcement – at the federal level.
At the very least, making the industry accountable to the public by terminating their exemptions to the Clean Water Act and other existing federal environmental legislation would force companies operating on the fringes to pursue better practices. The true battle about regulation seems not to be about the science of hydraulic fracking — at this point there are far too many unanswered questions to determine what legislation should look like anyway. As previously stated, a comprehensive study is being conducted with preliminary results due sometime next year.
Much of the opposition to regulation is a fear that the EPA, especially President Obama’s EPA, is politically motivated and will knowingly impose regulation that will handicap the industry (Schacter). However, some recognize that the EPA is a “responsible organization” (Bigham 7) and the study and eventual regulation of fracking is warranted, although “no single study would be able to answer all the questions” (Bigham 7). At this point the U. S. is faced with a relatively new, widespread technology of uncertain benefits and a host of potentials negative consequences.
While most of the health and environmental questions surrounding hydraulic fracking stand unresolved, it is difficult to say with certainty whether continuing the practice is worth it in any quantifiable terms. However, the economic impacts and negative consequences of traditional fossil fuel energy production are well understood. These practices, while cleaner and more efficient than ever are not viable for long-term use. Alternative clean energies of the future such as wind and solar are not yet able to shoulder the consumption needs of the nation.
In this unenviable gap, with no better choice available, the benefits of utilizing natural gas as an energy resource are still too remarkable to simply halt the practice entirely. Once the facts are in, commonsense, baseline federal regulation needs to be implemented to ensure that basic safety and environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing are addressed. These rules must not hamper, but encourage further industry innovations to move towards best practices that will minimize the negative impact of hydraulic fracking.