There is a subject matter in the world today where both sides of the debate treat the issue like a political hot potato. It is an issue where scientists on both sides are regularly challenged about their perspectives, and sometimes even called out personally for them. It is a debate where it seems like there is no common ground. We are either securing our energy future or we are destroying the world for our children.
The issue is fracking. This unconventional method of extracting crude oil, petroleum liquids, and natural gas from the ground creates hardcore support on both sides of the debate. One side will say that this technology is a modern miracle that makes affordable energy a reality for everyone on the planet. The other side will suggest that having cheaper fuel doesn’t matter if you don’t have a world that supports life.
When evaluating the fracking pros and cons that are available today, we must work to balance the extreme sides toward some middle ground. There are certainly some benefits to consider, as well as some risks, but the outcome is not a miracle or an apocalypse by any means.
List of the Pros of Fracking
1. Fracking does not impact water supplies when managed correctly.
The BBC reports that in the early days of fracking in the United States, it was quite common for the borehole to be improperly cased when drilling a hole to access the energy resources in the ground below. When this incident would occur, then it would become possible for the fracking fluid to escape into local aquifers. The EPA reports that no such incidents have caused lasting outcomes in 2011 testimony to Congress. When this work is done correctly, then there is little risk to the existing water supply. Most of the energy is underneath the groundwater table.
2. Fracking creates an outcome that is similar to the Earth’s natural responses.
One of the most significant concerns about fracking activities is the release of methane into the water or the atmosphere. Although releasing this gas from drilling will always be a concern, it is also notable that you can find pockets of the gas around the world even where there not be any recoverable fossil fuels. These areas carry a similar risk of groundwater contamination as the drilling activities do when the soil/water barrier is breached.
3. Fracking occurs underneath where the water-bearing rocks exist.
Most of the groundwater that we use for wells and municipal supplies is found within the first 1,000 feet of the surface. The depth of most shale deposits that the fracking industry accesses to create usable energy products are found between 6,000 to 10,000 feet beneath the surface. Since 1949, roughly 2 million fracking treatments have happened without a single documented case of the work causing a water aquifer to become polluted. Approximately 90% of all the gas wells drilled in the U.S. since then have been fracked.
4. Fracking can capture the greenhouse gas emissions.
No one argues about the risks that methane poses to the atmosphere or the water supply. New technologies that are being developed at MIT right now could help to harness the wasted gas into a usable product. It could become a fuel or a chemical feedstock when captured. Most of the wells will burn off the gas by flaring it before there is an escape into the atmosphere anyway, reducing the risks that are discussed in the potential disadvantages of fracking frequently.
There may be 150 billion cubic meters of the gas flared off each year across all industries, but it is simply a byproduct that is managed at the source.
5. Fracking reduces our reliance on coal resources for energy.
Although natural gas from fracking is not a perfect form of energy, it offers significant advantages when compared to the costs of coal. 42% of the mercury emissions that occur in the United States are because of activities of coal-fired power plants. It only takes 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury in a 25-acre lake to make any fish found there unsafe to eat. Over 45,000 pounds of mercury were emitted in 2014 alone.
Coal also produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter that contains cadmium, lead, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and arsenic. Many of these issues disappear thanks to the products offered through the fracking process.
6. Fracking uses very little water compared to other energy resources.
Although fracking may require up to 74,000 gallons of water to prepare well for energy release, the amount that the industry uses to produce energy is far less than what the competitive alternative resources require. When hydraulic fracturing is compared to coal mining, petroleum liquid extraction, or nuclear power, it uses 10 times less water to produce the same energy unit. The next time you fill up at the gas station and see the 10% ethanol sticker, remember that it took 1,000 times more water to produce the biofuel than it did to create the natural gas used in homes around the world.
7. Fracking does not require a permanent installation.
The process of fracking is not a permanent scar that affects property owners indefinitely. The wells are drilled to take advantage of the resources which are available underneath the ground. When the hydraulic fracturing work is complete, then many of the wells can operate independently with routine maintenance offered by inspectors. Although you can still see the structures on the land, the impact on the environment is minimal.
8. Fracking helps households save money.
There are several ways that fracking activities can help you to save money every day. The natural gas that is used for various power resources is cheaper because of hydraulic fracturing. You can benefit from the surge in tax revenues from drilling activities with lower property taxes, better school funding, or additional community projects. Roughly $8 billion in wages was paid in Colorado alone because of this industry. Even your public works and general infrastructure needs are financially supported because of what the fracking industry provides at all levels.
9. Fracking reduces the need for foreign oil and natural gas reliance.
Thanks to the benefits experienced by fracking activities, the United States is more independent today because there is a greater availability of fossil fuel products. Even though fuel prices do not always reflect this benefit, Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance told Fox News in 2018 that OPEC is becoming relatively irrelevant. “If OPEC is going to clamp back on their production in an attempt to control prices, they’re not going to be able to do it because the American producer will just produce more.”
10. Fracking uses natural materials to create an energy release.
The average well that is treated by the fracking process uses up to 97% natural products, usually fresh water and sand, to create the pressure needed to create results. A significant majority of the chemicals used in this process are items that are found in the home, such as sodium chloride or guar gum. Although there is understandable concern about companies not publishing their proprietary ingredient list, the Coloradoan reports that only one-third of the wells in Larimer County, Colorado actually contained a trade secret.
List of the Cons of Fracking
1. Fracking takes away funds from renewable energy.
If you were to compare the greenhouse gas emissions from coal consumption to what we obtain from natural gas use, then the latter would always win. It’s even cleaner than clean coal technologies! When you look at natural gas against renewable energy resources, there is no comparison. Although natural gas emits up to 60% less carbon dioxide during combustion, solar and wind hold a similar advantage over it. Funding fracking operations takes money away from what we could be using to develop cleaner energy technologies.
2. Fracking does not account for the methane release that occurs.
Many of the data resources that you can find online for fracking activities will discuss the greenhouse gas emissions released during combustion, but then fail to account for what occurs during the extraction process. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that methane leaks (and other fugitive emissions) contribute up to 9% of the total life cycle emissions from this process.
When methane escapes to the atmosphere, the impact it has on the global warming process is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide when trapped over a century. If you take a 20-year measurement, then the result is 86 times stronger.
3. Fracking creates the potential for more fossil fuel consumption.
People follow a predictable trend of consumption. If an item is cheaper, then they will use more of it. Although fracking does create more energy resources that are affordable to the average household, this process encourages an increase in how much people use as well. There are fewer incentives to conserve, so more greenhouse gas emissions are released from the combustion process.
4. Fracking uses a proprietary blend of chemicals.
What is in fracking fluid? Although you can find well-by-well comparisons of what is in use, drillers are not required to publish their proprietary blend of chemicals for public review. What we do know is that many wells require the use of non-ionic surfactants to create the necessary impact for the hydraulic fracturing process to occur. This catch-all category contains numerous products like Naphthenic Acid Ethoxylate, which can adverse health effects when repeated exposures occur. About 20% of the chemicals used in fracking processes today fit into the “proprietary” label.
5. Fracking can have an adverse effect on property value.
Most fracking activities occur in the western states of the United States today. When you purchase property in these states, you are not always getting the rights to every element that is accessible from the land. You have gas and mineral rights, water rights, and land rights that can all be split from each other on the deed. That means if you don’t own the gas and mineral rights under your property, then someone else can purchase them and drill on your land without seeking your permission. If an active well is next to your home, how much do you think that property would sell for if you need to move?
6. Fracking creates exposure to benzene.
In the early days of fracking, some companies would drill horizontally next to water-bearing rocks as a way to try to save money. It is now considered a bad practice, but that shift in preference does not change the fact that benzene was released to some water supplies. When people are exposed to this agent, then it has the potential to cause cancer. It has been found in underground water supplies where this type of drilling action occurred.
7. Fracking activities can sometimes cause earthquakes.
The evidence is mounting that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are leading to a significant rise in surface earthquakes. Many of these events occur in places where there are not any known faults that should cause such a tremor. Between the 1960s and the year 2000, about 21 of these quakes occurred in the Midwestern states of the U.S., all registering 3.0 or less on the Richter scale. Since then, the average has climbed to 188 per year. There were over 1,000 registered in 2015. Then Oklahoma experienced a 5.6 earthquake in 2016 that was believed to be linked to this industry.
8. Fracking reduces our ability to innovate.
When we invest in fracking technologies, then we are creating a potential future where affordable access to natural gas and petroleum liquids remains possible. The interesting fact about fossil fuels is that they are by nature a finite product. Even though it may take decades for us to run out of them, this possibility always exists. We must also send money toward the development of synthetic and renewable fuels that don’t require fracking activities to ensure that future generations will always have access to the energy they require.
9. Fracking can use a lot of water to prepare a well for extraction.
Although the drilling process for hydraulic fracturing may only require 74,000 gallons of water to initiate, that figure does not include the various other water resources that are necessary to perform a proper extraction. The average well in the United States can use over 30 million gallons of water over its lifetime. Our planet might be roughly 71% water, but 97% of it is salty and not useful for drinking without processing. Only 3% is fresh water, and 0.62% of it exists as groundwater. Using this resource for energy extraction may not be the best use of the resource for some communities.
The pros and cons of fracking must balance the health and welfare of our planet, countries, and neighborhoods with our need to have affordable energy solutions. If there is a way to safely remove natural gas and other fossil fuels, then it makes sense to pursue this method. If the health consequences continue to be a threat with fracking, then alternative solutions may need to be developed to meet our current and future requirements.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.