The Good, Bad and Ugly of Fracking

10 October 2016

There is a gold rush going on right now. Man is breaking the earth, looking for natural gas. It’s a mad scene, with hucksters on every side of the issue. There is a lot going on underground and that process is called Fracking. The word alone can stir up controversy. The process of extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” might summon in someone’s imagination an environment and damaged communities. Natural gas hides from sight it is invisible.

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Perhaps envisioned a prettier picture—one that involves clean-burning fuel, job growth and affordable energy. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that fracking “is the process of injecting large volumes of water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to break up shale formation allowing more efficient recovery of oil and gas” (Walter). This practice has grown rapidly over the course of the last decade thanks to improved technologies, but it also has fostered debates concerning its environmental, health and safety impact along the way.

The process of hydraulic fracturing – shooting water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into underground wells to release natural gas – is a divisive issue. Some say it dumps chemicals into ground water supplies; others argue it causes earthquakes, and still others think it can revolutionize America’s energy industry. Environmentalists argue that fracking contaminates ground and surface water – a charge the gas companies deny. Here’s the problem: the fracking process begins with a well drilled deep underground. Horizontal passages are then drilled outward from the bottom of the well.

Water, sand and chemicals are pumped at high pressure through the water is insignificant, and it has never been proven that those chemicals rise ground water supplies. On the other hand, environmentalists say the downward drilling process, if done poorly, releases chemicals into both ground and surface water. Both arguments are strong, which is why no one can agree whether fracking is a good or bad thing. The science is not settled; arguments are hurled back and forth by both gas companies and environmentalists. On the earthquake issue, seismologists say it is possible fracking can cause small earthquakes.

The British Geological Survey researched the Blackpool earthquakes, and the conclusion was reasonable. However, they did come back and say, “the chances of getting a very large earthquake are insignificant” (Walter). Meanwhile, a contaminated water supply is a hotly-debated issue: there have been cases where fracking has polluted water supplies as a result of poor oversight and procedures, but it does seem that if done correctly, fracking is not nearly as environmentally disruptive as traditional oil and gas extraction.

One thing that is settled are the benefits homegrown natural gas adds to the US energy industry. As chemist and author rich Trzupek wrote recently: “America has become, in the eyes of energy professions, the Saudi Arabia of natural gas thanks to shale gas. The doe estimates that shale gas reserves alone are 750 trillion cubic feet. (McGraw). Combines with other domestic sources of natural gas, the United States has enough natural gas to last for over a century, and the numbers continue to climb.

In areas where shale gas drilling is happening, the good times are rolling. Not only are people making money from the energy sales, jobs are created down the line, from the companies who support drilling operations down to the service industries that provide workers with food and shelter” (McGraw). According to Carlton Carroll, American Petroleum Institute (API) the oil and natural gas industry’s number one priority is safety. It is very important to maintain a perfect safety record but even one incident is way too many.

In a December 2012 press release, API called the extraction from natural gas from shale “the most important domestic energy development in the last fifty years…poised to reshape American manufacturing. ” And Chevron’s web site touts the practice for “providing the United States with reliable, affordable, cleaner and responsibly produced energy” (Walter). Developing these natural gas resources can help enhance the country’s energy security, strengthen local and state economies, and fuel job growth.

Many Americans, oppose any kind of pollution. However, here are reasons to support fracking: 1. It can lead to our nation becoming energy independent 2. It will provide an enormous boost to our state and local economies 3. It has already driven down natural gas prices to the point where utilities are replacing dirty coal-fired power plants with cleaner natural gas-burning plans and increasingly vehicles are burning natural gas instead of dirtier gasoline 4.

It will provide many well-paying jobs to geologists, well drillers, office workers, truck drivers, construction workers, and many more. So what is the snag—and how serious is it? Communities where fracking has taken place, notably in Ohio and Pennsylvania, protest the noise and scarring of the landscaping during the initial explorations. Restoration and compensation can better those concerns. The most significant fear is that the wastewater with chemicals from the fracking process, called, flowback, can contaminate the aquifers and drinking water.

State regulators in Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennslvania, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming have stated that there have been no verified or documented cases of groundwater contamination as a result of hydraulic fracking (Zuckerman). The process uses about 99 percent water and sand, the rest being a solution of a few chemicals (Zuckerman). Most drilling experts have asserted that it is highly improbable that fracking liquids will contaminate drinking water. Fortunately, no cases exist in which the fracking process itself has caused drilling liquids to contaminate drinking water.

The issue then is whether the flowback hazard can remain at acceptable levels. The real risk of water contamination comes from these flowback fluids leaking into streams or seeping down into groundwater after reaching the surface. This can be caused by leaky wellheads, holding tanks or blowouts. Wellheads are made sufficiently safe to prevent this eventuality; holding tanks can be made secure; and blowouts, while problematic, are like all accidents caused by human error. The energy industry has long stressed that fracking and water contamination has never been definitibely linked.

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