All Fracked Up

All Fracked Up

Fracking: it’s complicated, and it’s controversial. It’s an environmental disaster, or an environmental savior. It creates jobs and wealth…and earthquakes. Or maybe it doesn’t. It’s a bridge to the alternative energy future that’s worth its messiness, or maybe it isn’t. The latest headlines have at least one state banning the practice at the same time as some environmental activists are singing its praises. In other words, there’s a lot going on.

The hydraulic fracturing technique is about 60 years old, and emerged in the Midwest as a way to squeeze every drop of available crude oil from a spent well. The basic idea: blast water and sand down the pipe to push oil out. Today, the procedure, which now can also harvest natural gas trapped in shale, is a more scientific and surgical. Deep wells are dug (they extend far below the water table, advocates are quick to point out) and then turn horizontally to seek out gas-rich shale. Water and chemicals are pumped down under great pressure to fracture—frack—the rock and release the natural gas, which is then collected. For a country that is increasingly turning away from oil and toward natural gas for its electricity generation, fracking is one way to keep a steady and relatively inexpensive supply of gas flowing.

However, all it takes is one YouTube video of tap water bursting into flames (because of fracking’s release of methane, a very bad greenhouse gas) to convince a majority of environmentalists that when it comes to fracking, something just ain’t quite right.  It’s those kinds of images that inspired Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono to write a little ditty called “Don’t Frack My Mother” and to invite Jimmy Fallon to sing along.


Concern about fracking led to its first statewide ban in New York in late June, a ban that took seven years to wind its way past legions of passionate stakeholders. "After years of exhaustive research and examination of the science and facts, prohibiting high-volume hydraulic fracturing is the only reasonable alternative," New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said in a statement. "High-volume hydraulic fracturing poses significant adverse impacts to land, air, water, natural resources, and potential significant public health impacts that cannot be adequately mitigated."

In this case, state leaders proved to be more concerned about air and water pollution, unknown health threats, and even earthquakes than they were about the jobs and wealth that will now never be created in the some of the state’s most depressed regions. Naturally, the American Petroleum Institute was displeased. "Hydraulic fracturing is a proven, 60-plus-year-old process that has been done safely in over one million American wells," Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York branch of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. "Surging production of natural gas is a major reason U.S. carbon emissions are near 20-year lows."


Moreau correctly pointed out that earlier in June, the Environmental Protection Agency released a fairly favorable report that focused mainly on concerns about the contamination of both surface water and groundwater due to fracking. (It didn’t look at other burning issues such as air pollution and earthquakes.) 

Some interesting tidbits from the report:

  • In 2007, the EPA found that 98 percent of fracking wastewater was injected deep underground into briny aquifers.
  • The EPA made a list of 1,076 compounds that have been used in fracking fluid, but the typical well only uses about 14.
  • Regarding those chemicals, over 70 percent of wells use at least one chemical that drillers refuse to reveal as a “trade secret.”
  • Up to 10 percent of wells have had a surface spill of some volume, be it water or chemicals getting ready to go down the well or water that has come up.
  • About 8 percent of the spills the EPA surveyed made it into surface water or groundwater.
  • The EPA feels it’s very unlikely that fracking allows gas or fracking fluid to migrate into drinking water aquifers (which the owners of those fiery faucets may not believe.)

And the EPA’s money quote:

We conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources. We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.

The EPA seems to agree with fracking advocates that tight regulation and common standards for safe well construction could alleviate most of the concern about fracking’s potential threat to water supplies.


But what about the earthquake threat? Oklahomans who think that earthquake damage to their homes was caused by gas operations such as fracking now have the right to sue the driller. So said the Oklahoma Supreme Court in June when it handed a defeat to oil company lawyers who didn’t want such suits to make it to court. Experts are still spilt on to what extent fracking can be directly connected to the increasing number of earthquakes in Oklahoma and elsewhere, but now litigants can at least debate it in open court, giving fracking’s opponents a new legal weapon to use in their fight.

The original plaintiff was Sandra Ladra, who was injured when chunks of rock fell from her fireplace during a November 2011 earthquake. The defendants: Tulsa-based New Dominion LLC and Cleveland, Oklahoma-based Spess Oil Co. Ladra has an increasing amount of science on her side, including a joint study by the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the U.S. Geological Survey focusing on the impact of high-powered wastewater injection. There’s also the experience of everyday Oklahomans, who are now noticing a daily average of 10 small earthquakes, a phenomenon that didn’t start until the 2009 proliferation of fracking in the state.


And yet, despite all these concerns about fracking, there’s a school of economic/environmental thought that contends fracking makes green sense, at least for now. Why? Because generally speaking, natural gas is cleaner to burn than coal, so if fracking can help kill off coal faster, it’s worth it. It’s easier and cheaper, the economists explain, to move from coal to gas and then to alternative energy than to try to leap from coal to, say, wind turbines, especially when the coal lobby continues to hold so much sway in Washington. The more cheap natural gas that’s available, the fewer coal-powered power plants—which cause 75 percent of the CO2 created by American energy generation—we’ll need. Ban fracking, the theory goes, and we’re more likely to turn right back to coal for now and not to solar panels.

As for potential pollution from fracking, better regulation and standardization could address it as the EPA said, although skeptics will argue that an increasingly powerful gas industry would be just as capable of pushing back against regulation as today’s coal industry is. Still, theorists like Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, present well thought-out arguments in favor of natural gas—including fracking—as an inexpensive and politically tolerable bridge to the future. Burning any fossil fuel is bad, but gas is the lesser evil, the theory goes, and we should look for ways to deal with it…at least for the immediate future.

Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel, and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

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