Analysis of Fracking

Fracking has been hailed as revolutionary in unconventional energy supply and also as a bridging fuel to viable alternatives. However, the process remains controversial due to many concerns and issues surrounding it. Many of these issues are either politically motivated or environmental based.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a technique designed to extract oil and natural gas oil from rock formations (shale rock wells). These wells are deep, directional, horizontal, or vertical. The process involves injecting high pressured liquid mixture into shale rocks in order to cause the release of oil and gas inside. The liquid mixture comprises of 95% water and 5% chemicals. Fracking combines with directional thrilling to recover natural gas and oil from areas that were previously impractical to reach.

Fracking of shale gas is typified by scientific uncertainty. According to Ingle and Atkinson (2015), fracking is a generator, par excellence, of known unknowns” (541). On one hand, oil companies claim shale gas development will bring many benefits and on the other, opponents argue that its risks outweigh the benefits. This debate has generated mistrust and different perceptions. In the United States, thousands of shale wells have been drilled since 2000s, making fracking part of daily live for most Americans. However, extensive nature of this business has raised concerns pertaining to its local impact.

Prior to conducting this research, I knew the exploration of natural gas through fracking would deliver cheap, clean and environmentally friendly energy but also cause air pollution and contamination of groundwater reserves. However, I was not aware of the impact of directional, drilling, deposition of wastewater deposition from fracking, and gas leaks.

Conceptions and misconceptions
As a controversial issue, fracking is often accompanied by many conceptions and misconceptions. Because this breakthrough technology is relatively novel and has spread rapidly there is dearth of substantiate environmental and population-based studies of environmental and health impacts of fracking operations. Current research however indicates that there is considerable potential for negative impacts of fracking. It is misconceived that shale gas is cleaner than coal fuel when both are fossil fuels.

It is also alleged that fracking causes earthquakes. While the frequency and intensity of earthquakes have increased in recent decades, there is direct link to fracking. There are also concerns that fracking contaminates groundwater. However, there is no substantive evidence that wastewater and chemicals from fracking can work into groundwater reservoirs (Raimi, 2018). Shale gas production is said to be critical in boosting energy security and reducing reliance on imported oil. Shale gas development would result in cheap energy prices, job creation, energy security and economic growth. It is yet to be seen shale gas development achieves this.

Arguments for and against Shale Gas and Oil
Climate change has been framed as an energy security matter. Cuts in emissions have been encouraged as means of decreasing foreign oil reliance. Therefore, new local fuel source, such as natural gas, is very attractive. Shale gas production ensures energy needs are met without significant reductions in carbon emissions required to avoid harmful levels of climate change. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but both are fossil fuel anyway.

Proponents of shale gas exploration by fracking hold that increasing dependence on shale gas and oil will create widespread public health benefits. Combustion of natural gas generates fewer emissions in the air than that of coal combustion. Natural gas from fracking is replacing the combustion of coal, which contributes to immature death of people. In 2012, the use of natural gas to generate electricity went up by 30% while coal decreased by 37% in that same period in the United States (Raimi, 2018). However, leaking methane from fracking negates any greenhouse gas benefits of natural gas.

Proponents put it that fracking makes a country more secure and energy independent, and put more money in people’s pockets. Increasing dependence on natural gas is arguably creating many benefits, such as reduced reliance on imported oil, growth in manufacturing, job creation, and keeping money at home (Hawkins, 2020). The less dependence a country is on energy resources generated by other nations, the less it is influenced by them. Relying on others for energy resources can get complicated forcing a country to compromise its relationship with foreign powers. Natural gas is a bridge fuel to cut down dependence on imported oil while affording the country time to innovate new technologies that ultimately substitute fossil fuels. Natural gas is a short term solution to stopping dependence on imported oil. It is the important puzzle piece that will help the country save billions of dollars being spent on imported fossil fuels year in year out. By putting investments in greener energies while using natural gas for energy generation and transportation, the country can reduce its oil dependence, develop new technologies to make solar and wind technology viable, and save more money.

Proponents of fracking also claim that the process will provide security of energy supply, create thousands of jobs and increase tax revenues. The gas and oil industry supports more than 2 million jobs, which is a significant accomplishment given the newness of the fracking technology. This revolution contributed $62 billion to state and federal government revenues in 2012, amount projected to increase to $200 billion by 2030. This technology is also helping to spur manufacturing resurgence thereby improving the country’s competitive position in the global economy.

Natural gas however does not appear to be clean when negative impacts are considered, many of which are potentially harmful. Myriad reports of harmful gas leaks, contamination of land by unknown chemicals used in fracking, and groundwater and surface water contamination have come from the US, the country that pioneered shale rock fracking. The documentary Gasland (2010) shares experiences of families and communities experiencing fracking of natural gas in Texas, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. It features families suffering from health problems and whose homes are uninhabitable.

Environmental activists argue that shale gas and oil development presents risks to water quality from pollution of groundwater and surface water due to erosion from ground disturbances, chemical releases and spills (Hawkins, 2020). Fracking consumes large quantities of water resulting in concerns about excessive extraction from aquifers. The process also risks increases the risk of surface water and groundwater contamination from subsequent spills and leaks. The wastewater produced due to natural gas production has radioactive materials, toxic elements, and high salinity. Disposal and management of this wastewater is becoming a serious concern.

Drinking water near fracking sites in the state of Pennsylvania has increased levels of propane, ethane and methane. With the increase in the use of fracking techniques for natural gas production, the amount of wastewater produced is also projected to increase (Vengosh et al., 2014). The fracking fluid that is injected into shale rock is 5% chemicals, which might find way into underground water, or into the environment to harm wildlife and plants. People have to be concerned with the chemicals being injected, and the chemicals which are coming up because not all of them are disclosed. Fracking water fluid coming out is however well regulated to prevent it finding way into the surface. Waste water from fracking is often channeled into wastewater well deep underground.

Opponents also claim that shale gas and oil development presents risks air quality. Site preparation, well drilling and pumping of fluid requires widespread use of diesel-powered equipment resulting in air quality effects (Moore et al. 2014). Fracking technology is not designed to improve air quality. Moreover, air quality dynamics around fracking operations remain poorly understood as the cumulative health effects of fracking remain unknown. Air pollution can result from emissions of engine exhaust from increased truck traffic, gas which is vented or flared for operational reasons (Graham et al. 2015). 4 to 8% of the methane from gas production escape to the atmosphere through venting and leaks over the lifetime of a shale well (Hawkins, 2020). It is worthy to note that methane is 20 times as powerful greenhouse gas as CO2, meaning shale natural gas and oil are likely to prove more damaging compared to coal in terms of climate change (Harvey, 2011). Shale gas that is used to produce electricity has about slightly higher carbon footprint than coal, and when utilized as transport or heating fuel could be no environmental friendly than diesel. Natural gas is not a clean or renewable energy source in air quality terms.

Human activities like deep quarrying, geothermal energy production, and mining cause energy release stored inside the crust leading to induced seismicity (Bellani, Verma, & Shah, 2021). As a result of this, there have been several earthquakes in the past. Drilling near faults increases the risk of seismic events. Man-caused earthquakes have increased in areas like Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Ohio. Oklahoma experienced 41 quakes in 2010 and 903 quakes in 2015 of magnitude between 2.2 and 3.0. Fracking-induced earthquakes have been also reported in the United Kingdom and Canada. While many of these quakes in these areas were not attributable to fracking itself, wastewater disposal was implicated. Wastewater disposal is an auxiliary process of fracking and this makes these earthquakes fracking-related. The development of shale gas and oil increases the risk of earthquakes.

Natural gas development will delay a much-need transition to solar and wind energy that produce fewer airborne fine particles. Falling prices of natural gas will only prompt more use of energy. Because natural gas and its technology are cheap, it undercuts incentives to invest in alternative energy sources. Any investment any money that is invested in natural gas is resources that is not going to renewable sources. Natural gas is a threat to renewables. Moreover, the large greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas weakens the logic of its utilization as a bridging fuel if the objective is to minimize climate change.

Opponents and environmental activists make a strong case that due to the depth and intense nature of shale rock drilling and use of chemicals, fracking can cause as much environmental and health harm as conventional gas extraction. There are concerns about potential methane leaks, groundwater and surface water contamination, small earthquakes and air pollution. The risks of fracking range from ground water contamination to increased likelihood of earthquakes, release of harmful gases and water depletion. Natural gas is more environmental friendly compared to other fossil fuels.

Bellani, J., Verma, H.K., & Shah, M. (2021). Shale gas: a step toward sustainable energy future. Journal of Petroleum Exploration & Production Technology, 11:2127-2141
Fox, J. dir. (2010). Gasland. United States: New Video Group.
Graham, J. et al. (2015). Increased traffic accident rates associated with shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 74, 203-209
Harvey, F. (2011). Fracking shale gas: is it green as the oil companies say. The Guardian.
Hawkins, J. (2020). We Want Experts’: Fracking and the Case of Expert Excess. Journal of Environmental Law, 32(1); 1–24
Ingle, M. & Atkinson, D. (2015). Can the circle be squared? An enquiry into shale gas mining in South Africa’s Karoo. Development Southern Africa, 32(5), 539-554
Moore, C.W. et al. (2014). Air Impacts of Increased Natural Gas Acquisition, Processing, and Use: A Critical Review. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(15), 8349-8359.
Newell, R. & Raimi, D. (2014). Implications of shale gas development for climate change. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(15), 8360-8368.
Raimi, D. (2018). The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press.
Vengosh, A. et al. (2014). A Critical Review of the Risks to Water Resources from Unconventional Shale Gas Development and Hydraulic Fracturing in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 48(15), 8334-8348.

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