One of the more complicated environmental and political issues over the last few years has been the significant increase in the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the retrieval of previously inaccessible gas and oil reserves. Like with most issues today, many of the most vocal opinions out there are staunchly on either one side or the other when it comes to how much environmental damage fracking causes and if it’s worth the apparent economic benefits.
I’ve done my best to hear the arguments on both sides and draw conclusions based on the facts and what we know right now. A lot of media coverage focuses on sensationalizing stories and drawing a line down the middle that separates the two sides. I’m not gonna do that, as this is not a black and white issue nor is it as simple as both sides try to make it out to be. Few things are, especially when they involve environmental disasters, political bureaucracy, energy independence, and morons in central Pennsylvania signing over their land without reading the fine print. Now let’s get started.
What exactly is fracking? Is it dangerous to the environment? Why should I care? Is any part of this blog going to be funny or should I just skip it? These are all questions that I’m gonna try to answer in the following paragraphs, some maybe more successfully than others.
It’s kind of like the “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE” scene from “There Will Be Blood,” except the other guy has a really thick milkshake and you have to stir it with a spoon in order for it to go through your straw. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but I know it’s more complicated than that and not quite as delicious.
This process allows drilling firms to access hard to reach resources of oil and gas. In recent years it has significantly increased our domestic oil production and, as a result, has drastically lowered gas prices (yay!). But this comes at a cost, as studies have found that it’s “highly probable” that fracking triggers small earth tremors (boooooo!) and causes some worrying environmental issues as well.
Let’s start with the good stuff: the recent fracking fixation has resulted in a noticeable drop in carbon emissions domestically, as it has provided enough gas at cheap prices for natural gas to replace coal. In fact, America’s greenhouse gas emissions are currently at a 27-year low. Furthermore, fracking has given the US and Canada about 100 years of gas security, and presented the opportunity to generate electricity at half of the CO2 emissions of coal.
Now for the bad stuff: last weekend, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit Oklahoma. It's tied for the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the state and is believed to have been triggered by fracking operations in the area. Earthquakes don’t result from the actual drilling part of fracking; they actually result from the injection of fracking wastewater at depths well below the fracking horizon. But regardless of what part of the process initiated this, causing earthquakes is generally frowned upon.
Fracking also uses large amounts of water, which have to be transported to the fracking site at a significant environmental cost (i.e. hundreds and hundreds of heavy-duty diesel trucks). It can take up to 7 or 8 million gallons of water to frack a single well, and roughly 30% of that water is lost forever, deep underground.
In addition, many people also believe that fracking causes groundwater contamination. But this is where the narrative gets sensationalized and we have to be careful. From what scientists, geologists (rock scientists, so not really scientists), and drilling experts say, there is no evidence that the fracking process itself can cause groundwater contamination when done correctly. Instances of polluted groundwater in places like Colorado and Pennsylvania are more likely a result of bad practices, shoddy construction, and poor regulation.
The “fracking fluid” that is pumped into the earth also contains chemicals that are known toxins and carcinogens (aka things that cause cancer, like asbestos and Drew Barrymore’s acting). When contained properly within the fracking machinery or deep underground far away from natural aquifers, there is no risk of these toxins and carcinogens contaminating the water supply. However, due to poor regulation and oversight, spills and leaks have occurred numerous times and are known to have contaminated the groundwater in some fracking areas. This has lead to increased neurological disorders and cancer rates in the communities affected by these issues.
Oil and gas companies have paid millions in fines and settlements with the families affected, but at this point the money they’ve paid out doesn’t seem to be significant enough for them to clean up their practices, as mistakes keep happening.
Like regular oil drilling or nuclear power, fracking can be relatively harmless to the environment and our water supply as long as it is regulated appropriately and the people in charge don’t make gigantic mistakes. When that isn’t the case, events like Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, and Fukushima can happen and decimate the lives of the people, fish, and adorable little otters unlucky enough to be near the disaster.
When you drill deep into the earth for highly combustible resources using massive amounts of water full of carcinogens and neurotoxins, you sure as hell better have some major oversight and regulations put in place to make sure everything is up to standards. That’s where things seem to be going off the rails. It’s up to the government to start levying significant fines on companies that fail to comply to EPA regulations.
It’s also up to the media to write these stories, exposing companies that shirk their responsibility to the people in their drilling zones just to save a few bucks. Do you think any offshore drilling company is taking safety regulations lightly after BP lost a reported $62 billion due to the Deepwater Horizon spill? Hit these companies where it hurts (their bank accounts) if they contaminate our water and hit us where it hurts (our organs and bones and other parts of our body we need to live).