Is Fracking Good or Bad?

By Joanna Sax
[Ed. Note: Cross-posted at HealthLawProfBlog.]

It probably depends on who you ask. Proponents of fracking laud the energy independence, creation of jobs, environmentally friendly nature of natural gas, national security and economic benefits. Opponents to fracking have concerns about the impact to the environment, public health issues, and water use. Each side dismisses the other side’s arguments.

Perhaps a primer on hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is helpful. Fracking is the process of creating long vertical wells below the earth’s surface and then horizontal wells that break open the shale and allow the natural gas to be released and captured. Fracking uses millions of gallons of water to create these wells. A proprietary mix of chemicals in the water is used to create the fissures in the shale. Since the shale is far below the surface, proponents of fracking were able to convince Congress to exempt the industry from the Safe Water Drinking Act, which is now affectionately called the Halliburton Loophole.

The problem with assessing proponents and opponents positions on fracking is the lack of scientific data. While it may be true that the fracking wells are far below the surface, leaks in the fracking wells could impact the aquifers. The EPA is conducting a large scale drinking water impact study, with results that are eagerly anticipated to be released later this year. It could be that, for example, drinking water is/has been contaminated, but that with new regulations and novel innovations, these wells could be made safe such that drinking water is not contaminated. But, we don’t know if there is a problem without the scientific studies and if there is a problem, we need to determine if science/innovation can address the problem.

We do know, for example, that methane is released from the fracking wells. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The EPA issued regulations requiring future wells to meet specifications for capturing the released gas. The oil and gas industry says they can work with these prospective regulations. But, an environmental impact study is needed to determine whether the methane that will be released from older wells neutralizes any benefits from natural gas (as compared to coal) or whether it turns out to be even worse than coal.

And, there are other issues that need to be studied. What is the occupational hazard of working at a fracking site versus as a coal miner? I’d hypothesize that there aren’t jobs that are much worse for your health than being a coal miner, so fracking might win on this one – but, again, the study needs to be conducted.

Other issues exist that need to be addressed on both the environmental and public health fronts. These studies are needed to create a policy that supports innovation which protecting the environment and health.

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