Fracking could be the answer to multiple problems: besides energy security and economic woes, natural gas, even from fracking, is arguably cleaner than coal, generating significantly fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet fracking is also a flashpoint of environmental protest, accused of polluting groundwater with a dangerous—and secret—mix of chemicals injected deep into the ground. Plus, methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, leaks out during the fracking process, although the extent is contested. Against this backdrop, the state of Colorado, led by Governor John Hickenlooper and supported by the Environmental Defense Fund, has just passed what seems to be a common-sense approach to fracking—let it proceed, but with maximum environmental enforcement. Colorado requires regular monitoring of methane leakage “at drilling pads, at tanks and at compressor stations” according to The Wall Street Journal. Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment believes the regulations will “reduce annual energy-industry emissions of volatile organic compounds by 34%.” The new rules also require stringent monitoring of groundwater at regular intervals before and after drilling near all fracking sites (Colorado Department of Natural Resources, 2013).
It is easy to see the tantalizing promise of fracking, which is already reported to have contributed to a sizable downshift in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. Furthermore, a 2011 MIT study found that “replacing U.S. coal-fired electric plants with gas, while simultaneously reducing energy demands, could cut carbon dioxide emissions by up to 50 percent by 2050.” Despite risks and uncertainties, Colorado’s approach, to allow fracking but with tough regulations, seems to make sense, and I had planned to write this blog on why we need to allow fracking, but extend these tough environmental protections nationwide. To make certain that fracking can be done with a reasonable degree of safety, I did a quick search of the literature (mainly via secondary sources). Alas, I found disturbing reports that lead me to question fracking’s safety even with strong safeguards. It seems possible that proponents of a moratorium on fracking are right, that an all-out rush toward fracking is environmentally perilous. Yet that is what is occurring; For instance, a current American Prospect article predicts a possible 100,000 fracking wells in Pennsylvania, a state already at the center of fracking, up from a total of 7,000 today. Pennsylvania, however, is notable for its lack of regulation, a contrast to Colorado’s tough new rules. With plans to export natural gas, fracking is just beginning. What are the possible consequences?
Let us look first at methane emissions, since they are of global significance. As this blog has previously reported, the issue is contested (see SSPP Blog, 2012). A 2011 study claiming untenable methane leakage was quickly contradicted by other scientists (2012). The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse-gas inventory found that methane accounted for 9% of domestic greenhouse-gas releases, with natural gas the largest single source, a far smaller contributor than coal. A more recent report concludes that “well completion emissions are lower than previously estimated,” but that “emissions from pneumatic controllers and equipment leaks are higher than” EPA estimates, with overall methane emissions similar to the most recent EPA inventory. However, with such different numbers along each stage of the fracking process, definite conclusions are hard to draw. Furthermore, a just-released study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by Scott Miller of Harvard University, found U.S. methane emissions from all sources to be 1.5 times higher than previously reported, with “fossil fuel extraction and processing (i.e., oil and/or natural gas)…likely a factor of two or greater than cited in existing studies.” The problem is that it is extremely difficult to measure methane release across all the points of production, and among the various companies with their different practices. This would lend urgency to the Colorado approach of forcing energy companies to use the best practices and closely monitoring them. Yet if Miller et al. are correct, perhaps fracking is simply not a viable means of reducing climate emissions.
Now that I have failed to come to a satisfactory conclusion on fracking’s GHG emissions, let us briefly look at the groundwater issue. Films such as Gasland, which jump-started the anti-fracking movement in 2010, may exaggerate the risk. For instance, Gasland shows tap water set aflame due to the presence of methane, ostensibly from fracking. Yet critics contend that this is really due to gas naturally present in any case, and that the film is using an environmentalist scare tactic. The problem is the politicization of the issue, which makes it hard to evaluate evidence. I have no doubt that some environmentalists are predisposed to the scariest interpretation possible; yet, the tremendous amount of money to be made seems an even greater incentive for pro-fracking forces to distort the evidence. Researchers at the University of Texas, as well as Penn State, for instance, have strong financial connections to the fracking industry (The Atlantic, 2012). There is supposed to be a neutral referee, and that is the EPA. A 2011 draft document, reported on Reuters, did, in fact, conclude that fracking “was responsible for groundwater contamination in Pavillion, WY.” Under pressure from the oil industry and its allies, however, the EPA dropped this investigation, leaving Wyoming to conduct a final study (which may very well be subject to outside influence). Besides the suspicion of energy-industry sway, it is also possible that an EPA report showing definite groundwater contamination would have disrupted Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, another source of politicization. Given the clear need for the best information regarding energy sources to allow for the best decisions possible, it is disturbing that the EPA refuses to release a final report. I, therefore, reluctantly and provisionally, conclude that proponents of a fracking moratorium have it right, that we simply do not have enough information on fracking and its many risks to move forward. The tremendous amount of water—an increasingly scarce commodity in some places—needed to frack, and the possible link to small earthquakes if water used in the process is improperly stored, are two other reasons to move cautiously.
Energy decisions such as whether to allow fracking may be the most critical component of the fight to reduce climate change while allowing a decent life for as many citizens of the planet as possible. Unfortunately, given its cost and intermittency, renewable energy does not seem ready to take over the bulk of our energy portfolio quickly enough to avoid the worst effects of a warming planet. With proper precautions and high environmental standards, fracking provides a hope of quickly reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. For America, it provides the additional benefits of energy security and an economic boost during a difficult time. It is easy to see why the Obama administration would want to push fracking. Often, however, the easy decision is not the correct one, and it would be wise to delay fracking at least until a comprehensive EPA report due out in 2016—and to ensure that this report is not affected by outside pressure. This is not the direction we are going, however. Leaving fracking decisions to the states means that some will choose the quick economic benefit. Instead, we need to slow down, study more, and ensure that, if it turns out to be possible to frack with acceptable risk, it be done as safely as possible.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.