Notes From Underground: Fracking — The Bridge to Nowhere, Part I

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NFUG, CSPW Fracking 2According to its proponents, natural gas is supposed to be the bridge between old, dirty energy and new, clean, sustainable energy. But if the benefits it provides are temporary, illusory, and carry great risk to public health and the environment, fracked natural gas is not so much a bridge as it is a short pier – on which we’ve started a long walk.

The defense of natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing relies on many arguments that fall broadly into two categories: feeble and shortsighted. Here are five of the most common: (1) Fracking is good because it has increased the availability of natural gas and thus lowered the cost of energy; (2) The export of natural gas has created wealth for the U.S.; (3) Fracking provides jobs; (4) It has been done safely for decades; (5) Natural gas is less harmful to the atmosphere and environment than oil or coal. This post will rebut the first three arguments – or, at least, show that there is more to the story, and that there are better alternatives to oil and coal than natural gas. Arguments #4 and #5 will be addressed in a forthcoming post.

It should not be implied that the responses posted here are exhaustive; bad ideas tend to be attackable from a variety of angles. The counterarguments herein are merely meant to demonstrate that the pro-fracking arguments hold little or no water (possibly because all the available water has already been flushed down the fracking-well toilet). Conversely – and despite inadequate support historically for research and development of renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal, and small hydro power have all improved in efficiency and availability so that they are finally becoming as viable as they are necessary (as some figures here will attest). When the weak arguments are whittled away, what is left is the norm where fossil fuels are concerned: long-term common sense deferring to short-term greed.

The Price of Regress: Short-Term Profit, Long-Term Regret
Dubious notions #1 & #2: Fracking has provided inexpensive energy and a boon to the U.S. economy.

Those who see only dollars and cents brag that the exploitation of natural gas through fracking has driven down energy costs and generated wealth for U.S. corporations. These arguments come up short on at least three grounds: first, as usual, is the failure to consider externalized costs, such as those associated with environmental degradation; second is the transient nature of profits gained from exhaustible resources; third is the deliberate ignorance of renewable energy as a source of cheaper energy with far fewer long-term costs.

The low cost of natural gas is a short-term bonus, which will be followed by the long-term expense of cleaning up the mess created by the massive increase in temporary infrastructure (fracking wells have a variable but surprisingly short viable lifespan; see here). Then there is the potential cost for the cleanup of damage caused by earthquakes and accidents (as described here and here) and additional cleanup of disasters resulting from climate change – to which fracking contributes more than most reports let on (more on that in the next post). Fracking companies pay little of these costs; most are passed along to the general public while the profits largely stay in-house. What we arguably save today, we will be spending tomorrow.

Clearly many people have seen decreases in their energy bills, which can be attributed to increased availability of natural gas. But would these savings have been otherwise unattainable? Since the mid-1970s, the government has invested heavily in research into hydraulic fracturing, and even more heavily in tax breaks for natural gas companies. At the same time, estimates on savings to U.S. consumers vary tremendously, ranging from $165 billion to $624 billion total from 2008 to 2014, or roughly $2.5 billion to $10 billion per year. Do those savings justify the known and potential risks associated with fracking? In Kansas, for example, earthquake insurance is “relatively cheap” (according to the Wichita Eagle newspaper at “$35 to $100 a year for a $100,000 house).” Factor in the deductible (and the potential loss of property and property value), and one damaging earthquake could soak up the money saved on lower energy bills. And, as earthquakes become more common, we can expect those rates and deductibles to increase. If accidents harm well-water or aquifers, or if spills and leaks harm groundwater or crops, the “cost-effective” argument for fracking becomes weaker still. Conversely, where they are well funded (like the fossil fuel industry has been for decades), renewables produce cheap, clean, locally-sourced energy with far less externalized cost.

All the wealth natural gas purportedly generates, like fossil fuel reliance itself, is unsustainable. As extractive industries, gas, coal, and oil all thrive only as long as extraction costs are offset by profit. Here is the problem: as production increases, costs go down due to abundant supply, thus making expensive extraction no longer profitable. The vanishing point of profitability gets nearer as the low-hanging fruit is consumed. The natural gas boom, coupled with lower oil prices (in part due to oil-well fracking), has lowered fuel costs in the U.S. so that the profitable lifespan of fracking operations will become shorter and shorter. A question to ponder: As profits lag, what will disappear first: wages for on-the-ground workers, investment to assure regulatory compliance, or CEO salaries and bonuses? My prognostication: wages, compliance, and bonuses, in that order – the first two long before the third. Those great fracking jobs (see below) will lose appeal, and more accidents will occur due to decreased adherence to regulation.

As countries to whom the U.S. now exports natural gas (leaking all the way – see here) start to generate energy from other, renewable sources, the money spent on natural gas and fracking infrastructure will be seen as wasted investment. While this may not happen immediately – indeed, the industry will exploit gas availability for as long as possible – ultimately the exhaustible resource will become exhausted, and renewable energy’s efficiency and sustainability will make it a more desirable choice for anyone with foresight. At best, we’ll be left with tens of thousands of hulks of fracking apparatus blighting our once-beautiful landscapes; at worst, we’ll poison or squander our water supply in the meantime, while continuing to contribute to climate change.

Getting Jobbed
Dubious notion #3: Fracking creates jobs.

Arguments valuing an industry based on its provision of jobs must acknowledge a few facts: (1) any industry, when functioning, will generate jobs; (2) an industry which collapses due to its inherent unsustainability is only creating short-term employment; and (3) industries tend to become more efficient and more automated as they evolve – thus a new industry is likely to create more jobs than an old one.

The fracking industry employs about 200,000 people in the U.S. Though this figure is highly debatable (and hotly debated), it is at least more realistic than the numbers in the millions often presented by industry and the politicians it finances (see here, here, and here), which seem to include everyone employed anywhere near a fracking operation (See here for some additional assessments of employment and other economic aspects of fracking). Regardless, the question is: Would these folks otherwise be jobless?

We need energy, and most energy consumers don’t care much about where it comes from, but care about its availability and cost. The jobs are there – any energy infrastructure will create jobs. So, for the many tangential jobs “created” by fracking, it is incorrect to assume that other methods of energy production would not produce a healthy percentage of those jobs just as effectively. The focus must be on the jobs that are actually attributable to a given industry. As noted above, the quality and quantity of fracking jobs will continue to decrease as profits dry up.

Investing in the development of renewables instead of fossil fuels would generate short-term jobs in building infrastructure, and would then create sustainable jobs for management and maintenance of that infrastructure (See here, for example). The initial short-term employment would be substantial, and switching from a system based on extraction and burning of fossil fuels to one based largely on locally-produced renewable energy will require tremendous investment and work, just as the building of the power grid and the highway system fueled growth in the past. One might argue that the downside to the renewable energy industry is that, due to its sustainability, it may fail to fail, and we might never have another chance to invest in an entire new energy system. Given that there will always be both the need and desire to increase efficiency, and thus upgrade or rebuild existing infrastructure, the argument is weak; when contrasted with extractive industries, the long-term prospects of renewable energy will always be preferable to the extent they are achievable – and great things will be achievable if we change our thinking from expedience to sustainability.

Still, in the unlikely event that our sustainable infrastructure significantly decreases energy sector man-hours, maybe we can evolve a labor structure that allows shorter working hours, reasonable time for vacation, maternity and paternity leave, and higher standard of living. If this seems too idealistic, take a look at the economies of Northern Europe – see here – where shorter hours, longer vacation, and better family leave options are hand-in-glove in some of the world’s strongest economies with some of the highest standards of living – not to mention their ever-increasing reliance on renewable energy.

Just food for thought – pardon the tangent.

But, speaking of quality of life, what about on-the-job safety in these wonderful fracking careers? Some research (such as this) suggests that work in fracking, like throughout the fossil fuel industry, is extremely dangerous. Most of the hazards associated with fracking and other extractive processes are considerably less present in renewable energy production. So, rather than claim that fracking is good because it creates jobs, maybe CEOs in the energy industry should look towards sustainability, and recognize that, by definition, a sustainable energy industry will create jobs for a longer time than an unsustainable one, and the change from dirty to clean energy will yield short-term jobs and long-term profitability without the massive downside of fossil fuels.

More than Economic Impacts
The arguments of cheap energy, found wealth, and job creation only hold up when alternatives (and externalities) are ignored. Regardless, they may be the strongest arguments the industry has, as their short-term truth cannot be denied. However, when other considerations are factored in, these economic arguments quickly lose their punch. With its bleak downside, natural gas is a costly bridge to nowhere.

Part II of this post will discuss the history and future of fracking, from its innocent beginnings – dropping bombs into seemingly-exhausted drill-holes – to its real impact on climate, human health, and the environment.

 

CSPW Contributor Adam Arnold worked with GAP’s clinical program while earning his J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, is a member of the Maryland Bar, and has an LL.M. in International Environmental Law and International Organizations from American University’s Washington College of Law.

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