The benefit of hydrofracking

Posted by J. Galt

Note: In an earlier version of this article, I tied the production of hydrofracking to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. That was deplorably incorrect and a lamentable demonstration of poor research on the subject. I appreciate those who pointed out my error and now present a revised version.

A week ago, I found a poster in one of the dorm's hallways deploring hydrofracking for polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, poisoning local water sources and causing earth tremors. If these are the only problems that critics pose for stopping the development of fracking, then there really is no problem at all.

First, opponents argue that fracking causes earthquakes, but there is, in fact, little risk of fracking causing earth tremors. There has so far been only one such incident confirmed which occurred in the United Kingdom. In response, the U.K. carried out an extensive study to discover any causation of earthquakes by fracking before dolling out licenses to fracking companies. The U.K., after finding insubstantial evidence and declaring that the risk of fracking causing seismic activity was minimal, has started granting these licenses.

Second, critics claim that fracking poisons groundwater. Hydrofracking, as the name alludes to, uses water mixed with chemicals to flush out the natural (shale) gas in the ground. This toxic water, claim critics, can contaminate underground water and poison local inhabitants. The evidence supporting this, too, is inconclusive. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency tested groundwater for contamination at a fracking site in Pavillion, WY, and found that there was indeed evidence of contamination. Oddly, a second group that also tested the site in conjunction with the EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey, did not. Instead, USGS and many others accused the EPA of using equipment that contained paint which would have added the trace chemicals they were looking for,  and which would have tainted their own samples of water.

A recent report released at a conference of the Association for the Advancement of Science found that contamination did occur but generally occurred near the surface, where poorly constructed wells or storage pools for the released gas allowed the gas to leak and then contaminate neighboring reservoirs. This is certainly egregious, but it also denotes that contamination is not an inherent quality of fracking but of poor, corporate oversight. A few more regulations mandating that companies use state-of-the-art technology and monitor local bodies of water for contamination and the issue is mitigated.

The third issue is, of course, that natural gas is not a renewable source of energy and contributes to global warming. This is undeniable, but what is beneficial about natural gas is that it contributes less greenhouse gases than petroleum and coal, the two major sources of energy. According to the EPA, natural gas produces 43 percent less carbon emissions than coal and 30 percent less than petroleum. The main issue with natural gas is it can produce more methane, which is more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide, the poster child of global warming. Fortunately, there is technology that can prevent methane from leaking into the atmosphere during fracking, and methane only has about a twenty year lifespan before it decays, whereas carbon dioxide can hover for centuries in the atmosphere.

So far I've only discussed the three most common reasons propagated for prohibiting fracking. What hasn't been mentioned is that fracking can, if allowed to reach its full potential, create 3.5 million jobs by 2035 (according to a study commissioned by the U.S Department of Commerce.) Furthermore, fracking will allow the United States to wean itself off dependency of the Middle East (read: no more Gulf wars), will allow the United States to reach energy self-sufficiency by 2020 (at the earliest), and to begin exporting natural gas, which will finally shrink the trade deficit and budget deficit. An abundance of natural gas will also keep gas prices low for the mean time.

Natural gas won't replace the search for greener technology, as many environmentalists fear. Ernest Moniz, President Obama's nominee to replace Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy, advocates for the development of fracking as he considers natural gas a bridge to a cleaner-energy future. Natural gas is not the ideal choice for energy, but it is the most feasible and it is much better than what we use now: coal and petroleum. If we hinder the development of fracking, it will not accelerate the installation of solar panels and construction of windmills. We will just invest more heavily in coal and petroleum; that is how the economy works, for better or for worse. Advocating against natural gas and fracking is not only doing the economy a disservice, but the environment as well, and for that reason, fracking should be fully utilized for the time being.

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