Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is something that is easy to misunderstand. Those who don’t understand seem to think it does bad things to our environment… yes, they are all Prius owners. Fracking actually helps our economy, from lower oil and gas prices to opening up jobs for people. After reading this paper, fracking might not seem as bad anymore.
One misunderstanding is the most people think fracking causes earthquakes, but it does not. Steve Swanson, President of North Shore Energy, states, “earthquakes are typically not caused by oil and gas operations but, if they are, they are caused from produced water disposal and not fracking.” Earthquakes can be indirectly caused by this other oil and gas activity: “produced” water disposal at high pressures. Produced water is water that naturally flows to the surface when oil and gas is produced, which is then disposed of back in the earth. When the pressure builds up in that deeper disposal zone it can (sometimes) cause an earthquake. Although there are more than 180,000 of these water disposal wells in the U.S. (EPA 1) only a small fraction (<5%) are related to earthquake activity. However, this would occur regardless of fracking so fracking has no direct connection to earthquakes.
People also have the misconception that fracking automatically poisons drinking water. When asked about whether it could poison the water, Swanson stated, “It can but it would be very unusual. Fracking takes place very far below the surface (potentially miles below the aquifer) and drinking water is in aquifers that are relatively shallow.” Mr. Swanson drew a basic picture showing the great distance typically found between the oil zones (deep) and the drinking water zones (shallow) to make his point. People often use an out-of-scale picture as evidence of poison drinking water, but it is very unlikely. It is possible that fracking may contaminate drinking water when the wells drilled are too shallow and are drilled nearby an aquifer. Fracking may also affect drinking water when equipment used to produce the wells has a leak. However, just like with disposal wells, this occurs very infrequently.
Because the effects of contaminated drinking water are very serious, we should run tests to make sure wells are safe. This could be done by running simulations on a computer multiple times to figure out if drilling at a specific location is safe. If the tests show drilling is unlikely to cause contamination, wells can be drilled but still have penalties in place if something goes wrong. If the tests show it’s likely to cause contamination, then no drilling permits should be issued.
Now that I have cleared up some misconceptions, it is time to look at the benefits of fracking that are also overlooked. Fracking generates significant amounts of oil and gas which would not be produced using other methods. Fracking breaks up the rocks that hold oil and gas and allows both to move more freely. More oil and gas supply means lower prices, which benefit all the people who use it for driving and heating their homes.
It is still important to produce oil and gas because it provides a constant supply, whereas wind and solar are only intermittent (produced only when the wind blows or it’s sunny). Also, the cost of oil and gas is less. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) compared the cost of generating electricity using various sources in 2014 and found that natural gas was the second least expensive option, after geothermal, and considerably cheaper than wind and solar. Oil and gas is versatile because it can be used for heating and driving and it is storable and portable – it’s hard to live without it because it is so versatile.
Fracking also generates more jobs because oil companies need more people to work on drilling the wells and maintaining their facilities. These are professional types of jobs that pay well (not like flipping burgers!) and help grow the economy. These workers spend their money on other things, like supporting a family and buyings goods and services, so that other businesses are supported as well.
It is important that we develop all types of energy, including renewables (like wind and solar) and oil and gas, so that America can become energy independent – that means we don’t have to rely on Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries to provide our energy. For now, oil and gas remains the least expensive energy source available. It also means we can spend more of our money here and not send it overseas, which will also help our economy.
In summary, there are many factors that affect whether people think fracking is good or bad. As a result, it is confusing and people then base their opinions on only the factors they like the most. There are real concerns about fracking, like earthquakes and polluting drinking water, and real benefits, like jobs and cheaper energy costs and energy independence. If you look at all the facts there should be some concern about fracking, but not as much as there is now. It is a safe process with minimal chance of error if done correctly.