Fracking, Take 2

Ten more questions on a hot-button issue

In his September column, Ben Grumbles presented what he called “Fracking’s Top 10,” a list of top questions we should be asking related to hydraulic fracturing. In October, I offered my view, “Fracking and the Future,” where I addressed the importance of fracking to domestic energy production and its contribution to our economy and balance of trade.

Ben and I do not know what each other will be writing about from month to month, so it was not by design that we both wrote about fracking. It is more indicative of the importance of the subject that it was on both of our minds. There are many dimensions to this issue and many complex areas to explore. Ben concluded his article with the question, “What are your Top 10 questions?”

OK, Ben, I’ll take the bait. Here are mine:

10. Is the fracking issue far more emotionally charged than it should be? Are people nervous about hydraulic fracturing because the term “fracking” sounds ominous or scary? If we called it “advanced horizontal drilling” would it still make headlines?

9. Is it possible to separate the technical aspects of hydraulic fracturing from those involved in general drilling? Are most of the incidents being cited by opponents truly related to the technique of hydraulic fracturing, or are these incidents related to oil drilling techniques (e.g., well construction) in general? Will the regulatory focus on deep well hydraulic fracturing threaten to slow or even stop conventional drilling? If the public discourse were to change from one of “yes or no to fracking” to “stop drilling for oil anywhere,” with the inevitable impacts on energy supplies and prices, would more people stop and say, “Whoa, now wait a minute?”

8. Does the increased oil and gas production made possible by hydraulic fracturing serve to completely change the energy landscape in the U.S. and possibly the world? Does the increased production that comes with this technique offer the U.S. the quickest path to energy independence? Is it possible to supply our energy needs with sources produced solely in North America? Are we striking the right balance of risk to reward?  

7. If the U.S. was less reliant on oil from politically volatile areas of the world, how would that change our international responsibilities in those regions? Would we have as many troops stationed in the Middle East? If other nations became more reliant on Middle East oil, would they bear more of the peacekeeping responsibilities? The Chinese are on a path to becoming the largest importer of Middle East oil. How will their responsibilities change?  

6. Has there been sufficient focus on the impact of employment and the potential number of jobs that the increase in oil and gas production from hydraulic fracturing offers? In this era of high unemployment—especially for people in the unskilled and semi-skilled categories—can we afford to overlook or underestimate the benefits of the new jobs being generated? In a May 2011 column (“Drill Maybe Drill”), Ben cited a Pennsylania State University study that reported that the gas industry related to the Marcellus Shale generated $3.9 billion in total value-added revenue, more than 44,000 jobs, and $389 million in state and local taxes. How would these figures expand if we added the impact of other shale plays (e.g., the Bakken Shale in Montana)? Are the economic numbers too large to slow this development? Is this a virtuous cycle? Does gas development generate the economic activity that generates the tax revenue to properly fund and equip the regulators to properly regulate gas development so it can safely grow and expand?  

5. What does this increased domestic energy production mean for our economy in general? Will this lead to lower energy costs here at home and a resurgence of U.S manufacturing? Will we have less economic sensitivity to international events and “energy shocks?”

4. Is the talk of a fossil fuel-free future a distraction in this debate?  If natural gas is indeed a “bridge fuel,” is the bridge 100-plus years long? How long will it take before renewables are not only technically viable, but economically viable?

3. Beyond water, are the environmental and public health impacts related to hydraulic fracturing any different than any other industrial development? How are the issues related to truck traffic, air pollution and development

activity different for drilling and hydraulic fracturing than they are for building a manufacturing plant, shopping center or office building? Can we examine and deal with issues in the same balanced way that we would for any other development?  

2. What is the overall balance of the impact of fracking on carbon emissions reduction? Does natural gas offer a lower-carbon alternative to other sources? Is the switch from coal to gas, particularly for electricity generation, a larger contributor to the overall reductions in carbon emissions seen in the U.S. than any other factor? (For several months in 2012, natural gas, for the first time ever, contributed the same share as coal for fuel used in electricity generation.) Does locally produced gas reduce the transportation footprint relative to oil transported from the other side of the globe?

1Can fracking be done safely and without polluting underground drinking water?  

This last one I borrowed from Ben, because I agree that it is indeed a fundamental question. I also believe that the answer is yes. We of course have to ensure that we have environmentally responsible oil and gas development practices and policies. We have been able to do that with oil and gas development in general, and we can continue to do that with hydraulic fracturing, or any other innovative technical development. Sure, mistakes have been made. We should own up to them, fix them and learn from them. And yes, there are bad players and criminals out there who have constructed faulty wells or illegally dumped chemicals and wastewater (just as there are irresponsible opponents and protestors who chain themselves to equipment and otherwise illegally disrupt businesses and operations). We should put a stop to the negligent ones, prosecute the criminal ones and be careful not to define an entire industry by its worst participants. Let’s not allow an irrational fear of fracking cloud the issue or our judgment.

Finally, I prefer to get my information from knowledgeable and experienced individuals—like Ben—and the many engineers, geologists, regulators, etc., who are working every day to find the best and most productive path for responsible oil and gas development. Matt Damon, Yoko Ono and Lady Gaga? I wish them continued good luck in their entertainment careers. 

Bob Ferguson is a consultant in water and wastewater product safety, certification, analysis and treatment, and is a frequent author on water and environmental topics. Ferguson can be reached at bobferguson.wwdmag@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @Ferguson9806.

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