Increased calls for energy independence and the importance of oil to both America’s national security and economic strength raise questions regarding the nation’s energy future. However, energy industry giants believe they have the answer: fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process that injects a liquid and sand mixture into the ground at a high pressure, opening fissures in the rock that allow for oil and gas to reach wells for extraction. Despite the relative recency of the controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing, the technology itself dates back to the early 1930s, as an alternative to the use of explosive fracturing for oil and gas wells. In 1949, the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company received an exclusive license to a technology known as “Hydrafrac,” which involved injecting gels and liquids like benzene, hydrochloric acid, and diesel fuel at extreme pressures into well shafts. Hydraulic fracturing processes rapidly gained in popularity, increasing well outputs around the nation by an average seventy-five percent (MacRae). Oil companies applied fracking on ever larger scales in areas where other recovery techniques proved unfruitful. In 1974, Amoco introduced “massive hydraulic fracturing” when it injected over a million pounds of fracking chemicals into the previously unproductive J Sand Well at the Wattenberg Gas Field in Colorado. A 1965 United States Bureau of Mines study reported, “Many fields are in existence today because of these fracturing techniques for, without them, many producing horizons would have been bypassed in the past fifteen years as either barren or commercially nonproductive” (United States).
Fracking gained further momentum after the Gas Research Institute, a consortium of industry leaders, received research funding and support from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 1976. Drillers began exploring alternative approaches to fracking, incorporating techniques such as horizontal drilling during the 1980s and early 1990s. FERC’s investment paid off; industry members developed a technique called “slickwater fracturing,” which made accessible immense and previously unrecoverable oil deposits in shale fields across the nation, especially in Texas’s Barnett Shale (Shellenberger et. al.). As evidence of the new technology’s potency, production of shale gas in the United States more than quintupled between 1997 and 2012 (“Shale of the Century”).
Fracking’s widespread national adoption has brought with it significant economic and political advantages. The fracking industry currently supports more than 1.5 million American jobs, a number which could potentially double by 2020 (Nunez). Natural gas revenues supplemented state and federal income by $62 billion in 2012. Furthermore, a 2013 Bloomberg report posited that US crude and oil production had risen to a 25-year high as a result of advances in fracking technology, which allowed states such as North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico to increase their crude oil outputs by a minimum of 11 percent (Loder and Harvey). According to Britain’s The Independent newspaper, Texan oil production alone has risen to more than three million barrels per day from approximately one million barrels per day in 2009 since oil companies first began tapping the Barnett Shale. Were Texas an independent nation, it would place ninth in terms of global oil production, with projections suggesting it could singlehandedly outpace the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Iran by 2015. While speculators argue that many oil fields in the Middle East are steadily going dry, American production is booming thanks to the thriving fracking industry (Rasmi). By reducing foreign fossil fuel dependence, fracking is allowing America to simultaneously better both its political security and its international standing.
Despite fracking’s clear economic and political benefits, any objective analysis must also consider its disadvantages. Health issues are a primary concern. The fracking process introduces a mix of often undisclosed chemicals into oil wells which, along with excess oil and gas, can find their way into an area’s groundwater reservoirs. Many of these chemicals have adverse health effects: for example, regulators have detected benzene, a known carcinogen, in fracking runoff. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Geological Survey recently confirmed that fracking has contaminated groundwater used by the residents of Pavillion, Wyoming. Although no health impacts have as yet been reported, the ongoing joint EPA and state investigation has already uncovered evidence of methane, ethane, phenol, and other diesel-range organic compound contamination (Hoffman). Many New York towns have taken up litigation to prevent frackers from exploiting shale fields in their areas, citing environmental concerns. The New York State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the town of Dryden, NY in 2013, making clear the authority of local officials to decide the scope of industrial activities in their communities (Norse Energy v. Dryden).
Additionally, after being fracked, many wells emit significant quantities of methane, a byproduct that is not commercially viable to recover at multiple small locations because of the vast supplies from larger fields already available on the market. As such, operators often vent the methane into the atmosphere, even though it is a greenhouse gas significantly more potent than carbon dioxide. One study estimated greenhouse gas emissions at a potential maximum of 228 Megagrams of methane per well per year. Industry operators may opt to burn the gas away in a process known as “flaring,” which can more than quarter the amount of gas released (O’Sullivan and Paltsev). This only mitigates the impact, however, as the carbon dioxide produced is still a greenhouse gas which exacerbates other environmental concerns (University of Chicago). Moreover, clearing land for the drilling process and transporting machinery and product involve thousands of tanker trucks, emitting literal tons of exhaust, including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, both of which are potent greenhouse gases that might exacerbate climate change (Hoffman).
Furthermore, disposal of fracking runoff and recovered slurries is accomplished by shooting it into extremely deep disposal wells. Scientists affiliated with the Seismological Society of America have provided compelling evidence that the disposal of these liquid byproducts could magnify the risk of seismic activity. A sudden increase in seismic activity in historically calm states like Kansas and Ohio has been linked to the states’ new oil operations. Oklahoma, a state with negligible seismic activity, has seen quakes with a magnitude above 5.0 on the Richter Scale; the connection between seismic activity and fracking warrants further exploration (Eaton).
Additionally, there exists a debate on whether fracking affects water supplies meant for personal and agricultural use, especially in drought-stricken areas . However, strong evidence exists to the contrary, according to a study published by the University of Texas. The vastly increased supply of methane facilitates the conversion of many urban power plants from burning dirty, inefficient coal to cleaner natural gas. “Data shows that water saved by using natural gas combined cycle plants relative to coal steam turbine plants is 25-50 times greater than the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing to extract the gas” (Scanlon, Duncan, and Reedy). Because gas-fired power plants require less water to operate, they free up water resources and reduce the public costs of water in drought stricken municipal areas, particularly in Texas. Electrical and water utilities would see a reduced burden during drought periods because they would require less water to meet local electricity demands.
New developments in fracking procedures could reduce the need for water and eliminate some of the technique’s environmental concerns. For instance, Dr. Zdeněk P. Bažant, a researcher at Northwestern University, recently published a paper that explored replacing common hydraulic fracturing systems with an electrically-produced shockwave. By reducing the quantity of water involved, Bažant hopes to minimize the effects of chemically contaminated runoff on natural reservoirs. Alternatively, biotechnology entrepreneur Jay Short researched a microbe that converted hydrocarbons into methane and noted, “if we started feeding the microbes, we could get them to produce gas.” Short’s method could convert soft coal into natural gas, nearly doubling the amount of natural gas currently thought to exist and simultaneously reducing emissions from burning dirty coal by transforming the coal into cleaner natural gas (Chapple). With environmental concerns a driving force behind consumer discontent and conservation legislation, both energy companies and independent researchers are seeking out environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional forms of fracking and natural gas collection.
A number of courses of action would help mitigate the public apprehension surrounding fracking. For example, the EPA could mandate that companies make publicly available information regarding the chemical content of their fracking mixtures. Such legislation–already in effect in Wyoming–would provide communities with the information they need to make informed decisions about fracking projects in their areas. Furthermore, legislators could consider supporting the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC act), a bill that would grant the EPA authority over the disposal of fracking wastewater under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The passage of this proposal would “prevent the underground injection of fluids from endangering drinking water,” and could consequently strengthen public confidence in fracking (Jackson et. al.). Finally, industry leaders should demonstrate a willingness to continually improve the safety and efficacy of the technique by investing in research regarding the safe disposal of chemical byproducts of the fracking process. More research might, for example, yield techniques that enable the reuse of fracking chemicals. Because of the controversial positions surrounding fracking, policymakers and the public must further explore the technique’s complex and nuanced issues as the industry develops.
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Chapple, Steve. “An Alternative to Fracking?” UTSandiego.com. The San Diego Union-Tribune, 24 Feb. 2013. Web. 6 June 2014.
Eaton, Joe. “Scientists Say Oil Industry Likely Caused Largest Oklahoma Earthquake.” National
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