The Peer review
We need to understand how fracking affects the environment before we frack it up
by Veena Patel
Recent advances in U.S. natural gas production have led many to believe that the fuel source is heaven sent: cheap, clean and economically stimulating energy that can stop global warming and free us from dependence on foreign oil.
After his reelection in 2012, President Obama happily claimed, “We, it turns out, are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. We’ve got a lot of it.”
But is the apparent goldmine under our feet keeping our heads out of the clouds—and distracting us from what’s really going on in the atmosphere?
Environmental activists warn of the ill effects of improperly extracted natural gas. Canadian science broadcaster David Suzuki says that “we have better ways to create jobs and build the economy than holding an ‘everything must go’ sale on our precious resources.”
So, to frack or not to frack?
For the gas industry, that’s not really a question—fracking is happening and expanding exponentially across the country. At this point citizens, government and scientists are left to predict how the expansion of natural gas fuel will impact our economy, health and environment.
There is a surprising lack of consensus amongst the scientific community about the risks of fracking—likely because we know so little. In order to learn more, let’s consider three things—what risks fracking poses, how we can make it better and whether or not we should even bother.
Let’s start with the basics. Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting high-pressure liquid—usually a large volume of water, sand and a secretive recipe of chemicals—into shale rock. This creates small fractures in the rock that facilitate the collection of natural gas.
Fracking ventures are utilizing untapped natural gas reserves all over America. Natural gas skyrocketed from 1 percent to 27 percent of national power production in the last decade, while coal production dropped from about 50 percent to 39 percent.
Proponents of a switch to natural gas laud that burning methane—the chief molecule in natural gas—produces much less CO2 than burning coal. The only problem is that unburned methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas—105 times more powerful than CO2 over a 20 year timeframe, but less potent over longer period of time.
Although fracking wells are encased with a cement sheath to prevent gas from escaping, methane leaks have been reported numerous times in wells across the country. A 2011 study calculated that even a 3 percent leak of unburned methane would, over time, render natural gas as harmful to the environment as burning coal. Furthermore, another study found a 17-fold increase in methane levels of drinking water in wells within a kilometer of a fracking operation.
Another major problem is the immense volume of water used in fracking—approximately five million gallons each time a well is tapped—especially since dry desert regions tend to hold the largest gas reserves. To combat this issue, gas companies have increased their use of pressurized carbon dioxide as a water substitute.
Using carbon dioxide in fracking could incentivize the reuse of power plant waste and also eliminate wastewater generated by conventional fracking. While it appears to be a less destructive method, carbon dioxide fracking may never really take off—it’s considerably more expensive since it requires enhanced pressurization and the construction of carbon dioxide pipelines to each fracking well.
We know that fracking poses considerable risks—but has fracking actually caused any harm to the environment yet? So far, the data are contradictory. A high-profile study published in the journal Science reviewed groundwater near the Marcellus Shale in the northeastern U.S., finding little evidence of contamination by fracking liquid additives. On the other hand, another study published in the journal PNAS reported an elevated occurrence of methane leaks as compared to EPA estimates.
It’s difficult to objectively assess the impact of fracking since operations usually begin before baseline data can be obtained. Therefore, a handful of states, including New York and New Hampshire, have enacted temporary moratoriums on fracking. The six-year New York moratorium was enacted in 2008 and since then, the state’s Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation have been conducting reviews of fracking safety.
Six years later, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is still refusing to lift the moratorium despite pressure from lobbyists, citing that no decision should be made until the Department of Health is able to report reliable results.
We’re not immune to the fracking debate here in New Mexico, either. Mora County made history last year when it became the first county in the U.S. to ban fracking. As the area relies entirely on well water, county officials cited safety concerns in their decision.
Since then, residents of other counties in the state are feeling uneasy about fracking in our backyards. Earlier this week, the New Mexico branch of environmental organization 350.org attended the UNM Board of Regents’ meeting to draw attention to the millions of dollars the University is investing in the fossil fuel industry. 350 New Mexico called for a freeze on new fossil fuel investments and a divestment of 10 percent of current investments.
While the mysteries surrounding fracking understandably provoke concern about danger to our health and climate—we simply don’t know enough to confidently say whether or not fracking is a wiser investment than other non-renewable energy.
But we do know one thing: natural gas is still a non-renewable resource. While its current abundance may be economically attractive, exploiting natural gas as a primary fuel source will not lead us to a sustainable world and will likely not provide sufficient action against global warming.
Some argue that investing in natural gas will guide us in eventually transitioning to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear. That could make sense—if the energy industry were composed of conscientious environmentalists.
Promoting the same irresponsible use of natural gas as that of oil and coal will not encourage corporations to pursue renewable energy. In order for renewable energy to expand, it must be a lucrative option. If governments want to plan for the real future, natural gas is not the wisest investment.