One of the most heated environmental debates has recently centered on the costs and benefits of shale gas extraction, namely through an unconventional gas exploration technique known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The fossil fuel industry lauds the opportunities that shale gas and its production can bring. To the proponents of gas drilling, shale gas production means job creation, economic growth, and energy independence. On the other hand, environmentally and socially minded people highlight the much greater cost that fracking imposes on the environment and the human health.
Contrary to the stories that gas companies spin, shale gas development is never and cannot be about environmental protection, energy independence, or any other deceptive charms the companies have advertised. It is purely about profits for the gas companies regardless of all the harms shale gas production and consumption imposes on the nation and its citizens. It is important to not fall prey to the rhetoric of the gas industry.
Hydraulic fracturing, as the name suggests, is an extremely water-intensive energy production practice. It involves injecting large quantity of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into wells in order to extract natural gas. The process imposes dire risk of groundwater and surface water contamination. A recent study from Duke University found that fracking contaminated groundwater the majority of the time. Fracking has been linked to over 1,000 confirmed cases of groundwater contamination nationwide. It is estimated that 65 to 91 percent of the chemically treated fluids with toxins including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene remain underground. These chemicals, along with methane gas, will migrate into waterways through fissures and cracks. Additionally, spillages prior injection of chemically treated water or during the recovery, transportation, and disposal of millions of barrels of toxic wastewater can directly find their ways to rivers, lakes, and drinking water systems. Even if we put the water contamination aside, hydraulic fracturing still imposes major threat to water resources by using millions of gallons of water per gas well, and pumping aquifers dry in regions where lingering droughts have already made water scarce.
Then there is the industry’s favorite argument, which goes that “the environmental footprint of shale gas can be far more easily ameliorated than that of coal and other fossil fuels” (Jaffe, 2013). Dr. Ingraffea of Cornell University, who has studied fracking since 1982, points out that “producing and burning natural gas could do more to aggravate global warming than coal” (Cornell, 06/27/12). His study found that certain degrees of methane leakage are inevitable due to the failure in casing and cement. Not only would methane leakage contaminate underground sources of drinking water, but also damage air quality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirms high methane leakage rate up to 9% from gas field (Think Progress, 01/02/2013). It is also important to point out that methane, as a greenhouse gas, methane is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time scale (Think Progress, 10/02/2013). Consequently, the production and burning of shale gas is likely to have a greater greenhouse effect than conventional gas or other fossil fuels. Researchers from NOAA point out that if methane leakage is replicated elsewhere, the methane emission will utterly vitiate any climate benefit of natural gas.
Hydraulic fracturing also imposes unparalleled level of harm to human health, natural landscape, and public infrastructure, to name but a few. With all the environmental and social costs, we are still debating about fracking. Do we not have any legitimate alternatives? The answer is definitely yes. Renewable sources of energy, higher energy efficiency, and better end-user behaviors are only a few of the many choices we have.
Despite that gas companies have been belittling renewable sources of energy, the booming industry of renewable energy has made great strides, and with the right policies it can become a major source of our power. The potential of renewable energy is limitless. A 2003 factsheet by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory noted that a “100-by-100 mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity” and that much of this electricity could come from abandoned industrial sites. Energy Information Administration concludes, “covering 4% of the world’s desert area with PV could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity” (EIA, 12/19/11). Internationally, German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour, equaling to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity last May (Reuters, 05/26/12). In Spain, wind power exceeded 6 terawatt hours, enough energy to light almost all the homes in the country (World Future Society, 02/13/13). According to the Global Wind Energy Council (2013), wind power capacity increased tenfold over the last decade.
Even if we put all the environmental and human concerns with fracking aside, and entertain the gas companies with their drilling, the hard fact is that shale gas, like all fossil fuels, is finite and we will run out. What then? We have to turn to renewable energy sooner or later. Why not sooner and to avoid dangerous impact of a warming planet?
Let’s also entertain the gas companies by saying that natural gas “will” phase out oil and coal. Even then, even if we switch to gas entirely, the International Energy Agency estimates an increase of 3.5 oC in average global temperature, which is far higher than the 2-degree target set by the United Nations.
In closing, despite all the gas companies promises of job creation, bridge to clean energy, and energy independence, it is of paramount importance to recognize and to internalize the fact that the dirty fuels of the past have no place in a sustainable future.