Fracking is the process of pumping water, chemicals and sand into shale rock in order to release the huge reservoirs of natural gas that we now know is stored there. The UK government has just given its approval for fracking to be resumed in Britain.
As in America, the process has resulted in another one of those controversies in which both sides believe passionately in the moral rightness of their position, and often strongly suspect the other side of such deep bias that they are unable to examine the issues objectively.
I’ve been trying to sort out the issues. This is the way it looks to me so far.
Is shale gas less polluting than oil and coal?
Yes: Shale gas is substantially less polluting than carbon-heavy oil or coal.
No: Yes, shale gas is less polluting than oil or coal. But that does mean the coal and oil will stay in the ground. What we don’t burn will be used instead by other countries who don’t have shale gas. Shale gas, therefore, won’t reduce pollution or the gases that are causing global warming.
Unanswered: If fracking can be made to work, won’t other countries start fracking as well instead of using oil and coal to meet their energy needs? In that case, wouldn’t it help reduce our carbon problem?
Is shale gas less expensive than oil and coal?
Yes: As the United States has demonstrated, shale gas is substantially less expensive than oil and coal alternatives. Within 15 years, America will be completely energy-independent, and will not need to import any of the oil it does today. This would have huge political and economic benefits for the American economy, and for maintaining America’s role as a global super-power.
No: Neither the economic or political benefits of fracking may be as great everywhere as economists are predicting it can be for America. Shale gas supplies at this point are still in the exploration stage and so largely unproven. In addition, the jobs fracking companies are promising may be far fewer than predicted. And there is evidence that tourism, house values, and agricultural output are all reduced when the frackers move in.
Unanswered: Just as exploration is required to estimate how much oil or coal may be underground, so too further exploration is required to assess how much gas may actually be trapped in shale fields around the world. We simply don’t know.
Is fracking environmentally destructive?
Yes: Fracking has been associated with contamination of water supplies, air pollution and also with earth tremors and minor earthquakes. In addition, we are potentially talking about digging thousands of boreholes. They will remain a long-term danger if they start to leak after they have been sealed after the gas has been extracted.
No: Thousands of shale gas wells have already been drilled in the USA. The number of problems with leakage has been minimal. In any case, potential leakage can be drastically reduced if fracking is required to remain at least half a mile below any drinking water aquifers.
In addition, earth tremors resulting from fracking, when they occur, are small enough not to be a safety concern. Tremors have not been reported around thousands of other fracking operations.
Unanswered: Just how much solid evidence is there to tell us just serious our concern that fracking pollutes water supplies should be? Can the possibility be controlled by demanding safety procedures on the part of the frackers? Similarly, just how securely can closed boreholes by sealed, and will any regulations be seriously enforced? Both oil and nuclear industries do give cause for concern on the issue of regulation and safety.
There is also a serious question about the amount of water used for fracking in some areas. The four million gallons used on average for each borehole could create serious problems in shale gas areas that are suffering a drought. It would be doubly destructive if these areas are also agricultural centers where much of our food is grown.
Do we need shale gas?
No: The world unquestionably is going to continue to use more and more energy. The Greens say these needs can be met by investing in energy from wind, waves, and sun, along with a concentrated reduction of profligate energy use.
Yes: Many scientists and environmentalists say that renewable energy sources simply cannot produce the energy we require to maintain the life styles which the developed world has and to which the developing world aspires.
At this point, my own sense is that fracking, certainly in the United States, is going to continue to expand. The short-term possibilities are simply politically, economically, and politically too alluring to be stopped by longer-term concerns.
I also think that either our future energy needs are going to be met as a result of technological development, or our continued pollution of the environment will eventually reduce our energy use by reducing the size of the global human population.
If those are the two realistic alternatives, as I think they are, then our best efforts are to do everything we can to develop those technologies that will reduce our carbon footprint. Personally, I have reached the conclusion that it is wasted effort to try to stop fracking. But we can put effort into maximizing its benefits and decreasing its dangers.
If you are interested in reading more, one of the most even-handed discussions of the issues related to fracking is on grist.org.