Fracking – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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A natural gas fracking well near Shreveport, Louisiana.
Daniel Foster, “Natural Gas Fracking,” creative commons license, Dec. 23, 2012

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a method of extracting natural gas from deep underground via a drilling technique. First, a vertical well is drilled and encased in steel or cement. Then, a horizontal well is drilled in the layer of rock that contains natural gas. After that, fracking fluid is pumped into the well at an extremely high pressure so that it fractures the rock in a way that allows oil and gas to flow through the cracks to the surface. [1]

Shale gas extraction
Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Fracking,” britannica.com, Jan. 7, 2021

Colonel Edward A. L. Roberts first developed a version of fracking in 1862. During the Civil War at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Roberts noticed how artillery blasts affected channels of water. The idea of “shooting the well” was further developed by lowering a sort of torpedo into an oil well. The torpedo was then detonated, which increased oil flow. [2]

In the 1940s, explosives were replaced by high-pressure liquids, beginning the era of hydraulic fracturing. The 21st century brought two further innovations: horizontal drilling and slick water (a mix of water, sand, and chemicals) to increase fluid flow. Spurred by increased financial investment and global oil prices, fracking picked up speed and favor. About one million oil wells were fracked between 1940 and 2014, with about one third of the wells fracked after 2000. [2] [3]

Most US states allow fracking, though four states have banned the practice as of Feb. 2021: Vermont (2012), New York (temporarily in 2014; permanently in 2020), Maryland (2017), and Washington (2019). [4] [5] [6] [7] [] Fracking was a hot-button issue during the US presidential race of 2020, with President Trump firmly in favor of fracking and Vice President Biden expressing more concern about the practice, especially on federal lands.

Should the United States Continue Fracking?

Pro 1

Natural gas is a necessary bridge fuel to get to 100% clean energy and eliminate coal and petroleum, and fracking is the best way to extract natural gas.

Mark Little, President and Chief Executive for Suncor, explained, “The choice is not between fossil fuels and renewable energy, but rather, how do we accelerate the growth of renewables while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels.” [9]

Replacing coal and petroleum with natural gas obtained by fracking now allows the US to achieve short-term and immediate reductions in greenhouse gases that cause climate change while alternative energies such as solar and wind are built into viable industries. [10]

In the 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated, “natural gas – if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” [11]

Oil and gas company BP explained, “[A]s the world works towards net zero emissions, we think natural gas will play an important role in getting us all there… Natural gas has far lower emissions than coal when burnt for power and is a much cleaner way of generating electricity. Switching from coal to gas has cut more than 500 million tonnes of CO2 from the power sector this decade alone.” [12]

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Pro 2

Fracking is a safe method of extracting natural gas.

The Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), stated, “Hydraulic fracturing has been a key technology in making shale gas an affordable addition to the Nation’s energy supply, and the technology has proven to be a safe and effective stimulation technique. Ground water is protected during the shale gas fracturing process by a combination of the casing and cement that is installed when the well is drilled and the thousands of feet of rock between the fracture zone and any fresh or treatable aquifers.” [13]

Studies completed by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Yale University found fracking was not contaminating groundwater in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania. [14] [15] [16]

Mark Zoback, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Geophysics at Stanford University, stated, “The assertion that this [fracking] caused or will soon cause severe environmental damage is simply not true and needlessly alarmist. Through emphasizing best practice, appropriate regulation, and enforcement of those regulations, I have every confidence that horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracturing can be done with minimal environmental impact.” [17]

Further, earthquakes caused by fracking are extremely rare and the US Geological Survey maintains that there are no more earthquakes now than in prior years, only more equipment to detect the quakes. [18] [19]

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Pro 3

Fracking has allowed the US to produce and export more natural gas, which has increased national security and moved the country toward energy independence.

US Representative Fred Keller (R-PA) stated, “America’s energy independence has made our country more secure, put more money back in our pockets, and in rural areas—like those across central and northeast Pennsylvania—led to an economic explosion not seen in generations. The United States is now the world leader in oil and natural gas production and a net exporter of natural gas… The less reliant the United States and our allies are on energy resources produced by countries that hate us, the less influence they have over us.” [20]

Fracking accounts for 95% of new American natural gas wells. [21] Eliminating fracking would severely hamper the US’s ability to be energy independent.

A 2020 American Petroleum Institute study found that banning fracking could be disastrous, resulting in, among other consequences, a $1.2 reduction in 2022 GDP triggering a recession; 7.5 million lost jobs; a $3.1 million trade deficit increase through 2030; an annual household income loss of $5,040 per year; an increase in household energy spending of $618 per year; and a return of American dependence on imported energy sources. [21] [22]

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Con 1

The US needs to immediately transition away from all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth, stated, “Transitioning to renewable energy is not only necessary to fight the climate crisis, it is also the only way we can quickly and effectively meet rising energy demands… Over a billion people around the world lack access to electricity, and increasing fossil fuel-based generation will not fix this… Renewables, particularly small-scale renewables, are cheaper and faster to install. Small-scale renewables also tend to generate and keep power locally. This becomes a more effective way to fight energy poverty.” [23]

According to many climate activists and scientists, there is no scenario in which the US can continue to rely on fossil fuels, including natural gas obtained via fracking, while preventing imminent and irreversible climate disaster. [24] Green America explained, “Investing in a transition fuel is a dead end. The money spent on natural gas power facilities and infrastructure takes decades to recuperate. Companies would need to use these facilities for their full lifetimes, delaying the switch to renewables for far too long. Investment in natural gas does not incentivize a move to renewable energy. Stakeholders will be actively opposed to laws and regulations that promote clean power at the expense of natural gas companies.” [25]

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Con 2

Fracking pollutes groundwater, increases greenhouse gases, and causes earthquakes.

According to Environment America Research and Policy Center, “Fracking uses vast quantities of chemicals known to harm human health… [including at least] 5 billion pounds of hydrochloric acid, a caustic acid; 1.2 billion pounds of petroleum distillates, which can irritate the throat, lungs and eyes; cause dizziness and nausea; and can include toxic and cancer-causing agents; and 445 million pounds of methanol, which is suspected of causing birth defects… People living or working nearby can be exposed to these chemicals if they enter drinking water after a spill or if they become airborne.” [26]

A study from Cornell University found that the fracking process releases large quantities of greenhouse gases, including methane, that ultimately results in 20% more global warming per unit than coal. [27] While the fracking process itself is unlikely to cause earthquakes, the USGS has found that disposal wells for wastewater from fracking are associated with an “unprecedented increase” in earthquakes. [2] [28]

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) summarized, “Fracking is a danger to our water supply. It’s a danger to the air we breathe, it has resulted in more earthquakes, and it’s highly explosive. To top it all off, it’s contributing to climate change. If we are serious about clean air and drinking water, if we are serious about combating climate change, the only safe and sane way to move forward is to ban fracking nationwide.” [29]

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Con 3

The US should not stake national security and energy independence on a finite, market-dependent resource.

Rebecca Harrington, Deputy Editor of Business Insider, explained, “It’s easy to see why we should produce our own energy — relying on other countries for oil, natural gas, and coal (the biggest sources used today) can get complicated. It can lead to wars, or compromise our relationships with foreign powers…. Fossil fuels will eventually run out around the world, however. Experts estimate that the US only has enough natural gas reserves to last 93 more years, and enough coal to last about 283 years. Putting politics aside, there is only one surefire way to be completely and indefinitely energy independent: adopt 100% renewable energy.” [30]

As the COVID-19 pandemic has starkly illustrated, demand for natural gas can decrease dramatically. According to the International Energy Agency, global fossil fuel energy demand will decrease by 6% in 2020, the largest drop on record: “In absolute terms, the decline is unprecedented — the equivalent of losing the entire energy demand of India, the world’s third largest energy consumer.” [31] Renewable energies are the only energy source with growth in 2020, directly reflecting the value they hold for US energy independence. [31]

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Discussion Questions

1. Should the United States continue fracking? Why or why not?

2. Should the United States use natural gas as a bridge fuel to get to 100% clean energy? Why or why not?

3. What is the best way for the United States to establish energy independence? Explain your answer(s).

Take Action

1. Evaluate the information on fracking from the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

2. Discover how fracking works with a Ted-Ed video.

3. Consider the dangers fracking may pose to the water supply as explained by Greenpeace

4. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources

1.Marc Lallanilla, “Facts about Fracking,” livescience.com, Feb. 10, 2018
2.Melissa Denchak, “Fracking 101,” nrdc.org, Apr. 19, 2019
3.EPA, “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States,” cfpub.epa.gov, Dec. 2016
4.CNN Wire Staff, “Vermont First State to Ban Fracking,” cnn.com, May 17, 2012
5.Thomas Kaplan, “Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State,” nytimes.com, Dec. 17, 2014
6.New York State, “Governor Cuomo Announces Legislation to Make the Fracking Ban Permanent Included in FY 2021 Executive Budget,” governor.ny.gov, Jan. 22, 2020
7.Pamela Wood, “As Hogan Signs Fracking Ban, Environmentalists Question His Record,” baltimoresun.com, Apr. 5, 2017
8.Jay Inslee, “Inslee Announces Opposition to Two Gas Projects in Washington,” governor.wa.gov, May 8, 2019
9.Mark Little, “Climate and Energy Experts Debate How to Respond to a Warming World,” nytimes.com, Oct. 7, 2019
10.Steve Weissman, “Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel,” energycenter.org, Mar. 2016
11.Barack Obama, “President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address,” obamawhitehouse.archives.gov, Jan. 28, 2014
12.BP, “Reimagining Energy,” bp.com (accessed Oct. 2, 2020)
13.Groundwater Protection Council, “Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer,” gwpc.org. Apr. 2009
14.Tim Benson, “Research & Commentary: New Studies Confirm the Safety of Fracking in Pennsylvania,” heartland.org, June 20, 2018
15.E. Barth-Naftilan, J. Sohng, and J. E. Saiers, “Methane in Groundwater before, during, and after, Hydraulic Fracturing of the Marcellus Shale,” pnas.org, July 3, 2018
16.Tao Wen, et al., “Big Groundwater Data Sets Reveal Possible Rare Contamination Amid Otherwise Improved Water Quality for Some Analytes in a Region of Marcellus Shale Development,” pubs.acs.org, 2018
17.Jeff McMahon, “Of Course Fracking Is Safe, Stanford Prof Says,” forbes.com, June 26, 2017
18.USGS, “How Is Hydraulic Fracturing Related to Earthquakes and Tremors?,” usgs.gov (accessed Nov. 12, 2020)
19.USGS, “Why Are We Having So Many Earthquakes? Has Naturally Occurring Earthquake Activity Been Increasing? Does This Mean a Big One Is Going to Hit? OR We Haven’t Had Any Earthquakes in a Long Time; Does This Mean That the Pressure Is Building up for a Big One?,” usgs.gov (accessed Nov. 12, 2020)
20.Fred Keller, “America’s Energy Independence Has Contributed to the Great American Comeback,” thehill.com, Feb. 5, 2020
21.Mark Green, “Fracking Ban Could Cripple U.S., New Study Finds,” api.org, Feb, 27, 2020
22.America’s Progress at Risk: An Economic Analysis of a Ban on Fracking and Federal Leasing for Natural Gas and Oil Development,” api.org, 2020
23.Erich Pica, “Climate and Energy Experts Debate How to Respond to a Warming World,” nytimes.com, Oct. 7, 2019
24.May Boeve, ”Climate and Energy Experts Debate How to Respond to a Warming World,” nytimes.com, Oct. 7, 2019
25.Green America Natural Gas: Transition Fuel Myth,” greenamerica.org, Oct. 2, 2020
26.Environment America Research and Policy Center, “Fracking by the Numbers: The Damage to Our Water, Land and Climate from a Decade of Dirty Drilling,” environmentamerica.org, Apr. 14, 2016
27.The Climate Center, “Study Shows Natural Gas Fracking More Harmful Than Coal,” theclimatecenter.org, Apr. 14, 2011
28.USGS, “High-Rate Injection Is Associated with the Increase in U.S. Mid-Continent Seismicity,” pubs.er.usgs.gov, 2015
29.Bernie Sanders, “Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez Lead First-Ever Bill to Ban Fracking Nationwide,” sanders.senate.gov, Jan. 21, 2020
30.Rebecca Harrington, “There’s Only One Way for the US to Reach Energy Independence,” businessinsider.com, July 15, 2017
31.Pippa Stevens, “Energy Demand, Hit by Coronavirus Crisis, Is Set to See Record Drop This Year, IEA Says,” cnbc.com, Apr. 30, 2020