There’s been plenty of media hype and hysteria about a process known as hydraulic fracturing, which is more popularly known as fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing is a process in which drilling rigs drill vertical wells 3,000 to 8,000 feet underground and then turn the drills horizontally to collect natural gas or oil located in a shale formation. On its way to this destination, the rig must drill through a water table.
To extract natural gas or oil from these wells, companies inject pressurized water that contains some toxic chemical additives.
Cons of Fracking
On the one hand, fracking opponents claim that the hazardous chemicals used in the process pose risks to local water supplies. For instance, there is concern that wastewater discharged from the process may exhibit higher than average radioactivity.
A researcher at the University of Pittsburgh conducted wastewater monitoring at a sewage treatment plant near an area where companies have employed fracking techniques. He claims he found dangerous levels of contaminants like bromides, strontium, and chlorides sometimes exceeding the safe drinking water standards by more than 10,000 times.
This linked New York Times interactive feature outlines some of the hazards associated with hydrofracking.
Fracking opponents also claim that shale drilling is associated with the phenomenon “of gas-infused well water that can be ignited at a kitchen tap.”
That said, it is unclear if this phenomenon is a direct consequence of shale drilling. According to Steven Hayward, hitting “pockets of gas has been a well-known phenomena in shallow water wells in parts of Pennsylvania for decades.”
Pros of Fracking
On the other hand, fracking enables American producers to supply a greater percentage of the country’s energy resources domestically, thereby improving American energy security.
Advocates suggest that 20 new onshore oil fields could improve domestic oil output by 25% within a decade using fracking technology. Daniel Yergin, the chairman of IHS CERA compares this to “adding another Venezuela or Kuwait by 2020.” Shale fields currently produce half a million barrels a day, and are expected to produce 3 million barrels a day by 2020.
The same advocates also suggest that extracting these resources will create more than two million jobs. When the drilling boom began in Dimmit County, Texas, the unemployment rate declined by 50%, and sales tax receipts rose by 70%.
The outlook is even better for natural gas. For years there was flat domestic natural gas production, and prices spiked up to $14 per thousand cubic feet. Now, domestic natural gas production has exploded in large part because of fracking. The Energy Information Administration has increased its estimates of proven domestic natural gas reserves by 62% over the last 10 years. Furthermore, 2009 natural gas production was at its highest since 1973.
The bottom line is that both sides should find a way to make fracking possible in a way that minimizes ground water contamination and health hazards. Opposing it entirely is short-sighted as is ignoring any form of regulation to limit fracking’s hazards.