Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has proven to be one of the most controversial issues in the oil and natural gas industry. The main arguments against the practice are that it pollutes groundwater and causes earthquakes if done near geological fault lines.
The 2010 documentary Gasland, in which a Pennsylvania man lights his tap water on fire, created a major stir in France and was integral to that country banning the practice entirely, a move German Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks wants to see copied in her country.
Colorado, which has seen oil and natural gas production respectively increase 89% and 38% between 2007 and 2012, just achieved an 11th-hour compromise to keep off this year's ballot a referendum that would allow local municipalities to ban the practice. An 18-person commission is being appointed to determine how to resolve disputes between oil and gas companies and concerned citizens.
Addressing the concerns
Water contamination due to fracking is a valid concern. According to the American Chemical Society, the industry uses 190 chemicals, of which there is insufficient toxicity data for one-third. The state of Pennsylvania has confirmed 106 cases of water contamination over the past nine years. However, those cases mostly involved well water and were out of over 5,000 wells drilled.
Ohio, where over 80,000 wells have been fracked, received 190 water contamination claims from 2010 to 2013, yet only six were confirmed -- a 3% confirmation rate. This indicates that fears of water contamination are far more prevalent than actual contamination.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Geological Survey, Department of Energy, and Government Accountability Office (GAO) have all stated that no evidence of significant groundwater contamination exists. This is largely because fracking is done so much deeper than nearby water tables -- an average of 3,540 feet.
According to one 2012 GAO report, "Regulatory officials we met with from eight states -- Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas -- told us that, based on state investigations, the hydraulic fracturing process has not been identified as a cause of groundwater contamination within their states."
Earthquakes are mostly an issue in Oklahoma, which has a complex fault system and is the second-most seismically active state in the nation. A recent study from Cornell University and the University of Colorado indicates that fracking can trigger faults that are already present, mainly due to the high quantities of water injected into wells to enable energy companies to get at oil and natural gas (an average of 4.85 million gallons per well).
However, fracking earthquakes are not a major concern elsewhere, even the nation's most seismically active state, California. According to Mark Zoback, a geophysics professor at the Stanford University School of Earth Sciences and an advisor to the Obama administration: "The energy released by one of these tiny microseismic events (fracking) is equivalent to the energy of a gallon of milk hitting the floor after falling off a kitchen counter. ... Needless to say, these events pose no danger to the public."
What's at stake
While fracking is not a perfect process, it is far better than the alternative, which right now for many nations is coal.
For example, according to the Energy Information Administration, 50% of U.S. power in 2013 came from coal. Things are even worse in China, which derives 79% of its power from coal, has tripled its coal consumption since 2000 and now consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. For those worried about climate change, this is a very serious situation, since China is the world's largest emitter of CO2, ahead of the U.S. and India.
The situation is set to get worse, as 1,200 more coal plants are being built, 75% of them in China and India.
In fact, China and India alone are building 208 coal-fired power plants per year. China's coal ambitions alone will result in a 59% increase in such plants. Natural gas power plants not only emit 50%-70% less CO2, but the material is also far less deadly than coal.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), coal kills 40 times more people per terawatt hour than gas, a number that soars to 68 times in China. In the U.S., where coal is just four times deadlier than gas, coal kills 10,000 people per year; in China, the number is 500,000. If the U.S. were to entirely switch from coal to gas it would save 7,500 lives per year.
The WHO estimates that air pollution kills 7 million people per year. Of that, 1.9635 million people are killed by coal; compared to 18,480 for gas. Therefore, up to 1.945 million lives per year could be saved if the world switched from coal to gas.
Ultimately, what many of fracking's staunchest opponents fail to see is that stoking (often exaggerated) claims of earthquakes and water contamination might hinder a practice that could actually help slow climate change and perhaps save over a million lives per year.
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