Fracking is Harmful But Maybe Not as Much as You Think

Illustration by Cybergedeon | Public Domain Files

Raveen Sivashanker

Recently the fracking controversy has drilled its way to Southern California as the Environmental Defense Center, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental protection in the Santa Barbara area, recently rejoiced after U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez moved to postpone approval on offshore fracking permits along the SoCal coast.  

Fracking (short for “hydraulic fracturing”) has been promoted by supporters as a safer alternative to traditional fossil fuel extraction. However, it has been criticized by others for its potential damage to the environment. While in general fracking may represent an improvement on the extraction and use of other fossil fuels, it needs to be carefully monitored and regulated to prevent outstanding harm to surrounding areas.

Fracking is a process in which humans inject a pressurized water mixture in order to create fractures deep underground. When the pressure is removed, proppants suspended in the fluid (sand, for example) hold the fractures open, and natural gas (or sometimes oil) can flow through.

One can imagine how this practice would inspire widespread dismay — the pesky multinational gas corps breaking open the earth’s crust and sucking out its lifeblood, possibly inducing earthquakes and tsunamis and other acts of disaster in the process.

The majority of experts on fracking (“experts” meaning academics in energy, environmental policy, geology, etc., as well as those representing interest groups) will agree in some form or another that fracking is not inherently awful, if regulated properly.

While it is still a source of disagreement as to whether or not we know enough about the proper regulations and associated risks to continue safely allowing fracking in the present, in general it is true that it is less harmful, in the aggregate, compared to the extraction and use of other fossil fuels.

The primary reason for this conjecture is that natural gas is a relatively safe alternative to other fossil fuels. Natural gas emits half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal, with respect to the energy they produce, and less than all the other commonly used fossil fuels.

Even when adjusting for the greenhouse emissions associated with the entire extraction process, the overall fracking and natural-gas-use cycle is much more environmentally friendly than those of other fossil fuels.

Most of the general fears with regards to fracking are related to fracking-induced earthquakes and air and water pollution. The vast majority of human-induced earthquakes are, in fact, caused by wastewater disposal wells — a result of “all oil wells, not just hydraulic fracturing sites” — so this is not a legitimate way to separate out the ills of fracking as abnormal in the smorgasbord of harmful human activities.

A more relevant concern is the extent to which drinking water and breathing air is contaminated by fracking operations. According to one study, localized in Pennsylvania and New York, methane concentration in water supply was highly correlated with proximity to a fracking location. Though it was not discovered in a high enough concentration to be considered hazardous for ingestion, it was classified as a fire hazard, particularly in enclosed spaces.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that it does not have enough information to determine any universal water effects on a national scale — though in certain circumstances it has had an impact. Air pollution is similarly variable across different fracking operations, which, according to the study’s authors, “suggest that contamination events from unconventional oil and gas development can be monitored, controlled, and reduced.”

In particular cases, such as the offshore California permits, fracking can have a more direct impact on a local ecosystem and endangered species — this too, however, is most efficiently evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and is therefore a subject more relevant to federal regulations than for overall deliberation on the acceptability of fracking.

The EDC may have been correct in pushing for a delay on the fracking permits, if, as the judge decided, federal agencies had not been allowed to properly assess the impact on the local marine life.

Most of these consequences (without even being an exhaustive list of fracking’s consequences) share a general theme: in an absolute sense, fracking is certainly harmful to the environment. It pollutes the air and the water, the burning of natural gas releases a lot of CO2, the operation leaks a decent amount of methane, and it causes some earthquakes.

But, compared to the other ways in which humans harm the environment for energy, we can say, based on current evidence, that it is probably not uniquely harmful to the environment, and, if well regulated, might represent a meaningful improvement to the extraction and use of other fossil fuels.

As fracking researchers will often say, more fracking research needs to be done for us to determine this to be the case, and also what proper regulations would look like. Whether this is all cause for celebration or anguish depends on your optimism for a carbon-free world, your opinions on Florida, and your feelings toward human extinction.