Hydraulic Fracturing Doesn't Sound Like A Good Idea

I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but hydraulic fracturing sounds too risky a method of powering our civilization. Here's why I think so.

We're Already Having Significant Problems with Hydraulic Fracturing

  1. ...it's caused earthquakes

    Gas companies have already admitted that hydraulic fracturing causes earthquakes. From their press release:

    It is highly probable that the hydraulic fracturing of Cuadrilla's Preese Hall-1 well did trigger a number of minor seismic events.

    They go on to assert that earthquakes of such kind could not occur over 3 on the Richter scale. I am not convinced.

  2. ...it's poisoned our water

    A small but significant minority of homeowners in Pennsylvania and Wyoming have experienced groundwater contamination proved to have resulted from hydraulic fracturing. It doesn't happen at every drilling site, but it happens. It's difficult to say with certainty what caused a given contamination, so homeowners with newly-poisonous water are usually not compensated. (They have to either leave, or truck in all their water.)We know hydraulic fracturing makes well water flammable. Is it right that government and gas companies leave these people in an unsellable, unlivable home with a ruined mortgage?

  3. ...we have no good idea what to do with the waste

    Each hydraulically fractured well requires millions of gallons of water to be combined with sand and toxic chemicals before being pumped into the ground. Is it a good idea to intentionally pollute that much water? And what do we do with it when we're done? The Wall Street Journal lays out the options, none of which sound good to me:

    There are three options for waste disposal...

    • Truck the millions of gallons of wastewater produced per well to a treatment facility and either discharge the treated water into a river or reuse it for another drilling project;
    • Ship it out of state for deep-well injection disposal; or
    • Recycle it on-site for drilling multiple wells.

    ...

    "The challenge is that you can filter out contaminants and then purify the water to the point that it can be discharged to a stream, but you're still left with a solid that needs disposal such as landfilling," said John Conrad, president of Conrad Geoscience in Poughkeepsie, an industry consultant.

    Remember: the reports of massive profit to be made do not take these costs into account. At the very least, we need to know with absolute certainty that the government won't be on the hook for costs arising from spills, water treatment, soil contamination and other disasters.

    Also note that the first option, treating the water, has not been very successful so far. We're actively polluting our water by allowing fracking.

  4. ...homeowners don't get to choose how their land is used

    If you want to risk your land and health in exchange for money, that's fine with me. But nobody should have the right to make that choice for me and my property. Yet that's exactly what we have, through a kind of eminent domain exercised by private companies. Using "forced pooling", gas companies can force you to accept drilling on your land:

    ...holdout landowners typically have three choices: contribute to the cost of the well and share profits from the sale of the gas; don't pay for the well and share the gas profits after a "risk aversion" penalty is subtracted, or receive a state-mandated minimum royalty payment. Landowners who choose none of these options are automatically enrolled in the last plan. Opting out is not a possibility.

  5. ...it's turning out to be a dirtier energy source than we thought

    Natural gas is another form of extracting hydrocarbons from the ground so we can burn them, like oil and coal. It may have less of a greenhouse effect than coal, or it may not.

    Cornell professor Robert Howarth says:

    The [greenhouse gas] footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.

    We're also already seeing major gas spills, showing that natural gas is not a green energy source. It is nearly as destructive in terms of greenhouse effects as coal. Either way, it's not renewable and it's not without significant emissions. A massive restructuring of our energy economy should be directed towards renewable resources with zero or minimal emissions, not a slightly-less-polluting carbon source.

If Hydraulic Fracturing Is So Safe...

  1. ...why did gas companies need to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act? The EPA is specifically forbidden from regulating the use of hydraulic fracturing fluid, as well as the disposal thereof. This should make any reasonable person suspicious.

  2. ...why are we barred from knowing the chemicals being used? Disclosure has been partial, conditional, and long in coming when it comes at all.

  3. ...why can't doctors tell patients about the chemicals that could be making them sick?

    The law, an amendment to Title 52 (Oil and Gas) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, requires that companies provide to a state-maintained registry the names of chemicals and gases used in fracking. Physicians and others who work with citizen health issues may request specific information, but the company doesnÂ’t have to provide that information if it claims it is a trade secret or proprietary information, nor does it have to reveal how the chemicals and gases used in fracking interact with natural compounds. If a company does release information about what is used, health care professionals are bound by a non-disclosure agreement that not only forbids them from warning the community of water and air pollution that may be caused by fracking, but which also forbids them from telling their own patients what the physician believes may have led to their health problems.

  4. ...why are the risks for me, and not for thee? Under Governor Cuomo, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation allowed hydraulic fracturing everywhere except inside the New York City watershed. New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, agrees. What is this but an acknowledgement that the process is a threat to our water resources? Is it right for them to get the gas but not suffer the consequences?

Any serious discussion in favor of hydraulic fracturing must start by answering these questions to the satisfaction of the people who will be affected. That's democracy. And it hasn't happened yet.

History

Adam Briggle has a nice piece on Slate outlining the history of hydraulic fracturing, in which he notes the absurd lack of concern for any and all externalities:

The shale gas R&D projects assumed a kind of vacuum. The only criteria were technical feasibility and economic profitability, and the innovators failed to consider questions about how the technologies would play out in the real world. What is the long-term fate of the chemicals that remain underground? What do we do with the toxic mixture of fracking fluids and naturally occurring radioactive materials that flows back up the wellbore during drilling and production? How will roads handle the increase in traffic volume that results from the roughly 1,000 truck trips (hauling fracking fluids and waste water) it takes to get each well producing? What are the air quality and climate implications? Can we safely frack in places where people live? What happens when the wells run dry? Is it wise to further commit ourselves to a finite fossil resource that requires such extreme measures to extract?

Again, any serious proponent of fracking needs to answer these questions. The ramifications of each are probably (or at the very least potentially) highly damaging to the health and safety of the nation.

Other Resources

I get a lot out of This American Life's Game Changer episode, ProPublica's series on the issue, and the tweets of their point man, Abrahm Lustgarten.