What’s the big fracking deal?

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) has been in the New Zealand news quite a bit in recent times. If you haven’t heard about fracking, you’re not alone: a recent study in the US found that 63% of respondents had never heard of or were not familiar with hydraulic fracturing. There’s a great song which explains fracking in a nice concise way – it’s well worth a listen.

So what’s the deal with fracking? In short, fracking is the process of injecting water and chemicals at high pressure into the ground. This splits the rocks apart, and releases oil or natural gas. And why is this a problem? What’s not to like about getting more natural gas and oil?!

The main problems with fracking can be summarised as follows: it can cause earthquakes, it can contaminate drinking water and groundwater, and it can cause other potentially harmful environmental impacts (such as impacts on air quality and surface contamination).

Earthquakes

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) team has found a link between earthquakes and oil and natural gas drilling operations. Some quakes may be caused by the original fracking, but most of the quakes appear to be caused by the resulting brine which is re-injected deep underground.

There are those who believe that fracking earthquakes are nothing to worry about, as those quakes are only releasing energy which is already there and once released, the pressure will take centuries to rebuild. Whether the quakes concern you or not, there are bigger causes for concern.

Contamination of drinking water and groundwater

An independent hydrology expert has validated a recent study from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which found that fracking chemicals had contaminated groundwater.

These claims are not without controversy. Given that in 2004 the EPA found that fracking posed no risk to drinking water, the resulting confusion is understandable. One argument against fracking contaminating groundwater is that several thousand feet of rock separate deep shale gas deposits from freshwater aquifers, and the properties of the rock would prevent the fissures from expanding toward the surface.

However, there are people who developed tumours while living close to a fracking site. You might be tempted to write off such claims, but do you really want to take a chance with the water you or your children drink?

Other environmental impacts

Those who oppose fracking have mentioned a number of environmental impacts, and you can read all about them on Wikipedia. I am going to focus on an impact that I believe doesn’t get mentioned enough: the release of methane.

Supporters of natural gas will be quick to tell you that burning natural gas is cleaner than oil or gasoline, and it emits half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal. However, natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. Yes, it has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but it is also 20 times more potent…

But we still need energy!

Fracking only makes sense if it is tightly regulated, if methane leaks are sharply reduced, and as long as it is used as a short-term transition to replace coal. We still need to focus on increasing energy efficiency and developing sources of renewable energy. Otherwise we’ll be well on track for catastrophic global warming.

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