Its defenders like to claim that fracked natural gas is providing a bridge between the traditional fossil fuels of oil and coal, and clean, renewable energy like wind and solar power. I suggest that such a bridge is unnecessary, and that the investment in fracking and its associated infrastructure represents a step backward in the pursuit of widely available, sustainable energy, creating illusory benefits with real, negative side effects.
In our previous post, three claims of fracking’s economic benefits were addressed. A quick review:
1. The availability of low-cost energy provided by natural gas fracking is a short-term benefit that brings with it long-term problems — widespread blight from abandoned rigs, environmental degradation in the forms of air, soil, and groundwater pollution, increased seismic activity, and climate change;
2. The wealth generated by the U.S. fracking industry is like a high-interest loan with the payments passed on to the public: fracking provides a bundle of cash for the industry up front, but in terms of health and environmental impacts, society as a whole is left to pay off the debt;
3. The jobs created by the fracking industry are fewer than claimed, dangerous, and temporary, while investment in renewable energy would create as many short-term jobs and more long-term jobs for management and maintenance of sustainable, small-scale, local energy infrastructure.
In this post, two further claims in favor of fracking will be discussed:
4. Hydraulic fracturing has a long history with minimal negative impacts; and
5. Natural gas retrieved through fracking is less harmful to the environment than oil and coal.
Not Your Grandfather’s Fracking Operation
Misleading argument #4: Fracking has been done safely for decades.
Pro-frackers highlight the long history of fracking, during which few associated environmental disasters have been documented. This assessment is simplistic for three reasons: first, the methodology currently in use has a history of less than two decades and has proliferated only in the last decade, so claims of long-term safety are not based on the current practices; second, the scale of drilling has grown vastly since hydraulic fracturing was first introduced; and third, harm resulting from fracking has been difficult to accurately document, in part due to outdated or inadequate laws and poor industry transparency.
Fracking’s lineage dates back to the mid-19th century. The solution for a dried-up oil well in the 1860s was to drop explosives into the hole, run away, and cover your ears. Deaths at mining sites were common, but “contamination of the water supply” probably just meant you’d blasted half a raccoon into your neighbor’s well, and it had started to fester. “Environmental impact” was strictly a local issue.
Drilling technology has come a long way since then. Hydraulic fracturing — pumping water into existing gas drilling sites to loosen and make available hard-to-reach deposits — has been practiced since the late 1940s. (See here for a brief history of the practice). Replacing nitro-glycerin with water would seem to make modern fracking a huge improvement over the old oil rig depth-charge – except that the gargantuan scale of the 21st-century fracking industry guarantees much bigger and more widespread problems when things go wrong.
Today’s fracking wells not only routinely reach more than one mile underground, but the advent of horizontal drilling in the 1990s means that one drilling site can directly impact several square miles of real estate (See here for an overview). The increased productivity of horizontal-drilling wells has led to increased numbers of wells being constructed; the potential impact of fracking has thus expanded exponentially.
A fracking well in the 1950s would have squirted hundreds of gallons of water into the ground to loosen fuel deposits. Each well today uses millions of gallons water — water that is lost to the hydrologic cycle because it is infused with a cocktail of chemicals that render it unusable for most purposes (Disposal of this water is another major issue, which will require further exploration in a future post).
Most disturbingly, fracking companies are legally permitted to hold the exact chemical makeup of their fracking cocktails as trade secrets. They also fail to use tracers that have been in common use in the oil industry for over a century. Therefore, when there is a leak or a spill of fracking chemicals, it can be difficult or impossible to trace to a source fracking operation.
The “Haliburton Loophole,” which allows fracking companies to conceal the recipes for their toxic brews, is one of many examples of the weaknesses of the current legal framework for addressing fracking concerns. In successful civil claims against fracking companies for harm to health or the environment, gag orders have kept details about settlements from public scrutiny, thus making it easier for companies to claim that no harm has been associated with the practice. Coupled with the political sway held by the natural gas industry where fracking is lucrative in states (not to mention nationally – see “Haliburton Loophole” above), legal liability is unlikely to become problematic for the industry in the near future. And, because it remains so profitable, phasing out fracking before a major accident takes place is, so to speak, a pipe dream. There is no deterrence where liability and accountability are limited.
Between the massive scale of the contemporary fracking industry; the increasing proximity of fracking operations to residential areas; the contamination of air, soil, and water by chemicals used in fracking; its association with greater earthquake frequency; and the continuing struggle of the industry to resist further regulation, can there be a question that fracking’s historical safety record is suspect and unreliable, as well as inapplicable to current reality?
Wind — and watermills — meanwhile, have been used for centuries to generate power. While accidents have no doubt claimed some lives — mostly of birds and fish — major environmental disasters linked to renewables (disregarding large hydroelectric dams, which, due to their severe impact on the environment, are generally excluded from the blanket term “renewable energy”) remain unknown.
Arguing that fracking is safe because it’s been done for decades is like declaring that a landfill is still useful because it’s been functioning since the large city it serves was a small town 150 years ago; the scale and types of waste involved have changed, and the landfill is now leaking poison, underground, into all our basements. This veneer of safety will not last.
Indeed, it has already been pierced by numerous researchers – see here, for example. A number of disasters can already be traced to fracking — but the fracking industry, following in the tobacco industry’s tradition, denies the existence of scientifically proven examples. Suffice it to say that, if the fracking boom has not yet generated its first publically acknowledged, large-scale disaster, give it time.
The Lesser of Several Evils
Inaccurate claim #5: Natural gas is less harmful to the environment than other fossil fuels.
In terms of overall CO2 emissions, natural gas is less harmful than oil or coal. Regarding environmental harm to date due to extraction and transportation, fracking and natural gas are also looking pretty good — again, next to oil and coal, and without much scrutiny. But this is like comparing lung cancer to pancreatic cancer: the latter is more likely terminal, but, given the choice, most people would prefer to not develop either. While the environmental harm directly related to other fossil fuels is flagrant enough to make those caused by fracking seem benign, there are significant issues the fracking industry would prefer to ignore — and, of course, contamination of a large aquifer could be just one mishap or earthquake away.
More certain, however, is that cradle-to-grave emission of CO2-equivalent pollutants generated by fracking may be more harmful to the atmosphere than those created by oil and coal. The reason? Methane — the primary component of natural gas, which is emitted in huge quantities during the hydraulic fracturing process — is more than 25-times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Methane leakage from source to use averages about 3 percent — as if, when putting gasoline in your car, for every ten gallons, you poured a third of a gallon onto the pavement. So, while the burning of natural gas creates less CO2 by volume than oil or coal, tremendous harm to the atmosphere has already occurred before the natural gas is even put to use. The advantages of natural gas over other fossil fuels have been greatly overstated by those for whom fracking has been very profitable.
The spectrum of harm to health and the environment associated with fracking is very broad. As with any industry involving constant construction of new, massive infrastructure, fracking jobs are dangerous (as noted in the previous Notes From Underground post). People living near fracking operations — or anyone whose water comes from within several miles of a fracking well, which includes tens of millions of people in the U.S. — are at risk not only from underground pollution (should a well casing rupture near a well or aquifer), but from gas leaks, chemical spills, and general environmental degradation associated with the transport of gas from the well site.
A wider geographical area still is at threat from increased seismic activity, as seen in Oklahoma and other fracking-intensive states. Regional concerns over water use are also significant (could farmers in California make better use of the billions of gallons of water used for fracking?), not to mention the threat to America’s breadbasket were a fracking mishap to contaminate the Ogallala or another major Midwestern aquifer. Finally, there is the global concern connected to emissions of greenhouse gases, which fracking only exacerbates.
If fracked natural gas is less environmentally dangerous than oil or coal – which as indicated is a dubious stance — it is still obviously more dangerous than solar, wind, geothermal, and small-hydro power generation. These methods of energy production create negligible CO2-equivalent emissions, pose no significant risk to groundwater, and unlike natural gas and all other fossil fuels, are not exhaustible so long as the sun and Earth continue to exist. Even job safety is better with renewables, as they do not require constant building and removal of bulky infrastructure — that is, natural gas deposits are located, tapped, exhausted, and abandoned, while solar and wind farms just stay where they are, providing energy.
In other words, if — and it’s a big if — fracking and natural gas are lesser evils than oil and coal, they are still much greater evils than any renewable energy resource, and should not be relied on for our future energy needs.
A Bridge to Sell: Sold!
While natural gas has been defended as a “bridge” away from other fossil fuels, it is a flimsy, unreliable bridge with shoddy supports, which will cost titanic amounts to make useful. There are already enough real dilapidated bridges in need of replacing in the United States; why continue to invest in a metaphorical bridge we know will fail, and we know will create or add to numerous health and environmental harms in the meantime? With the growth in efficiency and availability of renewable energy sources, it’s like building an expensive pontoon bridge where a natural isthmus already exists.
When safety concerns abound and addressing climate change should be a crucial goal, we cannot afford to waste time, money, and resources on a harmful and doomed industry. We don’t need a bridge to renewable energy; we need renewable energy. So let’s end the debate — where reason is on one side and greed is on the other — and focus on the sustainable energy we need, not the short-term profits we crave.
And yet our greed and our energy gluttony have been used to disregard the warning signs, put better renewable energy development on hold, and exploit the increasingly worrisome practice of hydraulic fracturing. We now consume natural gas with aplomb, convincing ourselves that it is a step in the right direction. The bridge-to-the-future marketing strategy has been effective, but, like the profits, jobs, and environmental safety that frackers claim their industry sustains, the natural gas buzz will be temporary — another economic bubble, which will burst.
We have a choice: do we burst the bubble and blow the bridge by applying reason and foresight, or do we wait, as we always seem to, for a crisis or disaster to show us that the gains from fracking are short-lived, but the damage we do to our planet is not? We are building a bridge to nowhere at the expense of our environment and our health, filling the coffers of a few while burdening the taxpayer. As a society we have to decide to stop fracking and invest more in sustainable energy development and infrastructure. Politicians and corporate executives who disagree with our decision will need to start pursuing new career paths. I hear there will be good paying jobs in the renewable energy industry.
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.