Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) dates as far back as the 1860s, but its widespread use has come into vogue only in recent years as a means of gaining greater oil and gas reserves from once-unobtainable sources. As the United States and other countries seek to call forth new sources of energy to avoid Middle East dependence, the technique of fracking has found favor with the oil and gas industry.
However, fracking has not come without controversy. Reports of contaminated aquifers and home faucets spewing flames are just some of the problems associated with this method of extracting oil and natural gas, typically from shale reserves. Examining the pros and cons of fracking first must begin with an examination of the process.
What is fracking?
According to the “New York Times,” in the energy industry, fracking often “describe[s] just one part of the whole gas exploration and production process. Chemical-laced water and sand are blasted underground to break apart rock and release gas. Purists would say it is not really even part of ‘drilling,’ but actually the ‘completion’ phase.”
In fact, fracking is not drilling, it is a stage in the extraction process that happens after drilling has transpired. However, this play on semantics over terminology has been used by the energy industry to twist arguments and divert attention from problems that have resulted from the process.
War of words over fracking
Executives from companies that engage in fracking have repeatedly testified before Congress that there has never been a proven case of hydraulic fracturing leading to the contamination of ground water. However, those who have suffered at the hands of drillers who have caused blowouts, explosions, toxic air pollution, and chemical dumping in community streams argue otherwise.
To look at specific instances, one can see that technically the argument lies with the fracking companies: A well in Pennsylvania that suffered a blowout from fracking caused fluid used in the fracking process to poison a local stream (which is “surface” water, not “ground” water). Other aquifers in Pennsylvania were contaminated by methane gas released by the process, not the fracking liquids themselves.
Those who are feeling the effects of environmental pollution from the fracking process, however, argue that lobbyists and officials from the oil and gas industry are playing games over verbiage, not substance. There is no doubt that the fracking process is causing (and has already caused) damage to air and water resources.
Pros and cons of fracking
In examining the advantages and disadvantages of this method of removing valuable natural resources from difficult areas, whether one supports fracking or not frequently depends on whether the risk is worth the reward. For advocates of fracking, it means more energy from domestic resources, new jobs in the energy industry, less dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas, and bigger profits for energy companies engaging in this method of extraction.
For those who oppose fracking, the arguments against this method of extraction lie with the contamination of natural resources such as air and water, the displacement of people from their homes (when methane enters the water supply or toxic chemical spills occur), the long-term health effects from pollution, and the financial costs associated with blowouts, contamination, and toxic spills, as well as unknown medical costs down the line.
Further, the real costs to human life and property and possible detrimental impact from fracking have been difficult to assess. There has been a lack of cooperation on the part of the energy business and political pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has taken a self-censoring approach to the release of government data on the issue.
What is clear is that the controversy over fracking will continue until the risk can be mediated enough to justify the reward. Whether a better energy supply or a cleaner environment will win out has not yet been decided.