No Fracking Way
Is the controversial extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing adequately regulated?
- Right now the industry is losing money on every dry gas well that's drilled. But it's even worse for solar, wind, and other clean energy sources.
- What we are hearing now is not how we're going to end our addiction to fossil fuels, but about "hundred years of gas."
- Our ecosystems (like our bodies) can absorb a certain amount of abuse and still bounce back. But at a certain point, it's just too much, and the insults overwhelm the resilience.
The natural gas boom — driven in large measure by the environmental destructive practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — is doing more harm than good. The enormous scale of development, its very rapid pace, and the smoke and noise accompanying it — all defining elements of a “boom” — explain why the balance tips to the negative.
The scale is a problem because the most serious health and environmental impacts of fracking are largely due to very intensive development. We have 500,000 gas wells in this country, nearly 3,000 in just one county, and 11 compressor stations belching carcinogenic air emissions in a tiny town of only two square miles (Dish, Texas).
Our ecosystems (like our bodies) can absorb a certain amount of abuse and still bounce back. But at a certain point, it’s just too much, and the insults overwhelm the resilience.
Take Pennsylvania, for example. In the beginning, Pennsylvania was letting the frackers take their wastewater, which is contaminated with very high levels of salts, to sewage treatment plants, where it was diluted with the sewage.
The wastewater was then discharged into rivers and streams. In short order we had a water quality violation in its drinking water supply for 350,000 people.
What’s more, environmental regulators in Pennsylvania realized that if they continued to let the frackers take the huge volumes of waste generated by shale gas development to sewage treatment plants, they would salinate every freshwater stream in the state in a period of two years.
The same dynamic operates on a global level. Our atmosphere can absorb a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions. But if we release too much, the climate warms to a point of catastrophic change.
The natural gas boom is taking us to that tipping point, because the way that fracking is done now releases very large amounts of methane into the air. And methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, as much as 72 times as potent as carbon dioxide in the short term.
A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that the leakage from fracking is about 4% of production, and scientists have recognized that, at that level, gas loses its entire climate advantage over coal when it’s burned for electrical power.
The intensive development isn’t really even good for the industry. Right now the industry is losing money on every dry gas well that’s drilled. But it’s even worse for solar, wind, and other clean energy sources, because they are displaced when the price of natural gas drops so low.
The boom is not only too big, but it’s way too fast. It is out ahead of the science. We know — as the result considerable public pressure — that some of the chemicals that are used in fracking are toxic.
But there are many chemicals whose toxicity has never even been tested. We have no clue what they are going to do to our health or the environment, either in the short or the long term.
We don’t know where the wastewater that stays underground after fracking — and that can be as much as 90% of the wastewater in the case of northeastern shale — is going to migrate in 20 years or more.
The development is also way ahead of the protections that we have. Instead of doing the necessary science and putting the requisite safeguards in place before we move forward, we are flooring the accelerator and responding to crises. When you move too fast, you cut corners — and you have accidents.
An uncontrolled experiment
The breakneck speed of drilling is particularly troubling when it comes to climate change, because the single most important factor for the social and environmental impact of climate change is the speed at which it progresses. If the planet warms too quickly, we won’t have the time we need to prepare or to adapt.
Climate scientists therefore tell us that we have to address the most potent greenhouse gases right now, as fast as we can, and high on that list is methane.
The hype and the hoopla from the gas industry are clouding our vision and making it impossible for us to hear the facts. There are hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to ensure that this industry can continue to operate — without the science and without the protections we need. In just two years, 2009 and 2010, the industry spent $320 million lobbying the federal government.
As a result, what we are hearing now is not how we’re going to end our addiction to fossil fuels, but about “a hundred years of gas.” But developing a hundred years of gas presumes that we will extract every molecule of gas from all of our reserves, even those that we haven’t actually discovered yet, when it is well known that only about 10% of those reserves tend to be economically feasible to develop.
And if we switch our power plants over to gas — as well as our transportation systems and our heating and cooking systems — and then on top of that we export liquid natural gas to other countries, how long is that abundant resource going to last? And at what price to our health and environment?
The boom mentality produces magical thinking. The idea that the oil and gas industry is going to abide — voluntarily — by the “golden rules for a golden age of gas” is just a fairy tale. The industry fights every protection we try to put in place, federal and state, even when it’s in its economic interest to comply.
What this all means is that we are in the middle of an uncontrolled experiment. If we get it wrong, there is no turning back.
So we need to take the opportunity now, when we have a glut on the market and we are not desperate for gas, to do the science and get the protections in place — before it’s too late — and the natural gas boom that looks so exciting now goes bust in the face of the next generation.
Editor’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks in the Intelligence Squared U.S. debate, “No Fracking Way: The Natural Gas Boom Is Doing More Harm Than Good,” on July 1, 2012.