Photo by Simon Fraser University via Flickr
Fracking, while banned in most countries around the world, is still a booming business in the U.S. mining sector. For the last century, fracking has given a boost to the energy market in Northern America, allowing both the U.S. and Canada to rely less on Middle Eastern countries for petroleum products. Backers of fracking highlight low gas prices, a reduction in emissions compared to other dirty energy sources such as coal, and the ability to generate electricity for growing urban communities. In the United Kingdom, the issue of fracking is being used as a way to sell naysayers on job growth, suggesting that the practice can produce thousands of jobs and points to the U.S. as an example.
What Exactly Is Fracking?
While the practice of fracking has been around since the late 1940’s, it’s been in the news more frequently as environmental awareness becomes a social concern. Using large scale drills which burrow themselves beneath the earth’s surface hundreds -- sometimes thousands of feet deep, fracking is the process in which hydraulic fracturing is utilized to extract oil and natural gas reserves from rocks. Using a mixture of water and sand which pierces rock layers at a highly pressurized rate, fracking is the most commonly used method for powering communities with natural gas. The U.S. produces the largest amount of natural gas compared to other world nations. About half of all jobs in the world related to fracking can be found in the U.S. It is widely practiced and those in the industry call it the “engine in the U.S. energy revolution.” This marketing phrase and many others are often used to describe the practice as environmentalists have come out in condemnation of it.
One of the main reasons fracking has continued to thrive is its supposed economic benefits. And let’s face it, urbanization is on the rise. With a growing population, energy needs must be carefully thought out and produced to answer the cries of an escalating demand. According to the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization, the price of natural gas dropped significantly, some $13 billion per year from 2007-2013. Consumers have reaped the benefits as natural gas plants have popped up all over the country, thereby increasing profits and marketing the message to the consumers who use the transitional fuel.
Some will also argue that we can look to greenhouse emissions produced by the dirty cousin of natural gas and oil as a reason to support fracking. Burning coal as a means of producing electricity has a carbon content of 78 percent, which is nearly 3 short tons of carbon dioxide. Because of fracking for oil and gas, burning coal has decreased from 50 percent in 2008 to 37 percent in 2012. Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide have also experienced a decrease as a result. This is not to say that oil and natural gas are without their faults, for they too are a major contributor to the fossil fuel quandary.
Environmental and Health Repercussions
With strong supporting arguments for the continued fracking method, it seems that green advocates would have a difficult time proving that fracking is not only bad for the environment, but costly in the way of quality of health and life. Not so, according to many. Numerous studies point to worldwide air pollution, health concerns, and a robbing of fresh water reserves as a direct consequence of fracking. With around 50 years worth of proven worldwide oil and gas reserves, environmentalists who take a stern approach to the argument that supports the practice of fracking can be successfully argued that fossil fuels do in fact have a shelf life.
Because of its limited supply, fracking has sprung up in populated areas, causing concern among residents for the risks it poses on their drinking water. In 2012, Steve Lipsky, a resident of Parker County in Texas noticed the water from his well which supplied his household with their drinking water contained large amounts of methane. So much methane was present that the water bubbled and could be lit on fire. Mr. Lipsky sued the oil and gas company he believed caused the tainted water. Lipsky’s story is not unique. Former Environmental Protection Agency scientist Dominic DiGiulio took on a case in Pavillion, Wyoming in which residents complained of a foul taste and odor from their drinking water. Tests of the water revealed that it had been in fact tainted by toxic chemicals, although the source was hard to determine. Years later, it was shown that toxins commonly found in fracking waste were present in the tap water and likely contaminated it as a result of being stored in unlined pits deep in the ground.
If this weren’t enough, geologic studies are revealing a disturbing trend in the frequency of earthquakes and looking at fracking as an underlying participant. In 2001, around the time fracking began a sharp rise, so too did earthquakes with 188 in 2011 alone. Because the process of fracking requires drilling a mile or so beneath the earth’s surface, its pressure can have the ability awaken faults yet to be discovered, thus causing a disturbance in geological activity. While earthquakes are considered a naturally occurring phenomenon, this alone is cause for serious concern especially as we come to understand human contribution to such events.