A Global Ban On Fracking: Arguments For And Against

Anti shale gas fracking protestors outside the cuadrilla fracking site at Preston New Road in Lancashire. Editorial credit: seeshooteatrepeat / Shutterstock.com.
Anti shale gas fracking protestors outside the cuadrilla fracking site at Preston New Road in Lancashire. Editorial credit: seeshooteatrepeat / Shutterstock.com.

Fracking is also known as hydraulic fracturing, and it is a technique used to extract oil or gas from subterranean rock. The process involves injecting a mixture of chemicals (fracturing fluid), water, and sand at high pressure into boreholes made through a combination of vertical and horizontal drilling. The water mixture opens up fractures or cracks in the rock, and the sand then lodges into the spaces created to keep them open, and this allows oil and gas to flow out. The fracturing fluid and contaminated water flow back to the surface over the well’s lifetime. The technique is typically used to exploit oil and gas that may remain in the mother rock (the lower part of the geology that has decomposed over millions of years leading to the formation of gas or oil) in microscopic pores once conventional gas and oil reserves are exhausted. Most of the global fracking activity is centered in the United States, particularly in Oklahoma, Texas, and Pennsylvania. The discovery of unconventional shale gas and shale oil deposits around the world in countries like China, the UK, Australia, Argentina, and Mexico has led to increased interest in the technique.

Arguments In Favor Of A Global Ban

Hydraulic fracturing requires a huge volume of water to extract the oil or gas out of the ground compared to conventional oil and gas extraction. Fracking operations lead to the generation of two types of industrially contaminated water. Flow-back water, which is extracted in the first 30 days or so after the well is subjected to pressure, and production water, which flows from the well over the entire life of the well. The companies carrying out hydraulic fracturing contaminate water resources and produce toxic industrial effluent that contains chemicals, sand, fuels, and water. The production water is typically dirtier than flow-back water as it has a higher TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) and TSS (Total Suspended Solids) concentration. The effluent contains large amounts of toxic metals, brine, organic hydrocarbons, and naturally occurring radioactive materials. Most oil and gas companies discard the wastewater into deep wells and leave it there, a cheaper alternative that is not environmentally friendly. Some companies also choose to treat toxic effluent. In some instances, municipal facilities that lack adequate equipment and capacity also handle the poisonous effluent. Hydraulic fracturing also requires wellbores that traverse drinking water aquifers, which poses a considerable health risk to those using the water.

Atmospheric Contamination

Fracking leads to a significant amount of air pollution, which is a threat to human health and environmental sustainability. Air pollution could also contribute to global warming and climate change. Hydraulic fracturing activities contribute to air pollution in every stage of the production process. Processes include drilling, pressurization of geology, handling of chemicals, compression, extraction, transportation, decomposition of effluents, and generation of power needed for the pressurization process. Local communities living close to the areas where fracking operations are carried out or workers at fracking sites are oftentimes the first to get exposed to the impact of such activity. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), commissioned by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, found that benzene concentrations at a distance of 625-feet from the fracking site (beyond the safe reach provided in many states), were above levels that the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers to be of minimal risk to human health. In Colorado, the NRDC discovered many hydrocarbon pollutants including, aliphatic, hydrocarbons, trimethylbenzenes, and xylene, which are associated with adverse neurological and respiratory effects. In Utah concentrations of toluene, benzene, xylene, and aliphatic hydrocarbon were observed to increase with an increase in proximity to the fracking site. Researchers estimate the mass flux of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) was equivalent to the emissions made by 100 million cars. The study also found that the benzene levels exceeded standards set to protect the immune system, blood, and developing fetuses from harm.

Water Depletion

Hydraulic fracturing consumes large amounts of water and could reduce the flow of rivers and streams hence diminishing ecosystem services and water available for other uses. Scientists estimate that about 2.8 million gallons of water are used per well. Since a single fracking platform could have up to 12 wells, over 23 million gallons of water are required for fracking purposes. In arid and semi-arid areas, groundwater aquifers have been a significant source of water for fracking. Some of the aquifers used are non-renewable resources, which may be depleted, causing increased water insecurity.

Effects On Land And Land Use

Complimentary access roads to platforms require an additional 2.4 acres of land for transportation from pad to pad. Fracking leads to the fragmenting of land by roads to the sites, which can have a devastating effect on wildlife and their habitat. The land that is used by oil and gas companies is often left abandoned after use and is never restored. Fracking can also affect other commercial activities in the area, such as farming. Farming near the sites is likely to compromise the safety and quality of agricultural products. Since the technique allows companies to tap fossil fuels beneath a vast area, they could increase the risk of seepage over a large area surrounding a single pad. The fracking process also competes for water resources that were previously allocated to households and other commercial ventures.

Earthquakes And Tremors

Scientific research has confirmed a link between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes and/or tremors. In Oklahoma, which was a previously earthquake inactive state, has experienced large clusters of earthquakes, which are linked to fracking activity. In countries such as the Philippines, China, Spain, and other earthquake-prone areas, deadly earthquakes have also been recorded that are linked to fracking. In 2015, the state of Oklahoma embraced scientific findings that correlated earthquakes experienced in the state to oil and gas operations where large volumes of industrial effluent were injected into underground wells.

Arguments Against A Global Ban On Fracking

Aggressive expansion of hydraulic fracturing in the US has enabled the country to become the second-largest producer of natural gas after Russia. Fracking has led to the creation of thousands of jobs in various states, including North Dakota and Pennsylvania. In 2014, North Dakota had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.8%. Between 2012 and 2013, there was a 5.9% increase in construction jobs, a 23.1% increase in mining jobs, a 7.7% increase in financial service jobs, a 5.6% increase in business service jobs, and a 4.7% increase in warehousing, utilities, and manufacture jobs. More jobs and increased pay lead to more disposable income and improvement in other sectors of the economy. For example, car dealers in North Dakota have had record sales in the last couple of years, coinciding with the fracking boom. In2013, North Dakota’s GDP grew by 9.7%, with 3.61% of the growth being attributed to mining, particularly fracking operations. The state’s per capita real GDP was also seen to rise to 40% above the national average, making it the second-highest per capita real GDP in the country at $68,804, second only to the District of Columbia. Total tax collection in the state also increased from $1.8 billion in 2007 to $5.3 billion in 2013

Reduction In Carbon Dioxide Emissions

The US is currently the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after China. It also has the highest per capita emission in the world. With climate change becoming an increasing threat to human well-being, governments are coming under increased pressure to tackle climate change. Fracking leads to an abundant supply of shale gas, which is a cleaner fuel compared to other fossil fuels such as coal. Experts observed that during a significant part of the fracking boom, the US economy grew while emissions declined. Shale gas from fracking is gradually replacing coal in energy production.

Decreased Vulnerability To Supply Disruptions

Periods of high gas and oil prices have often led to concerns of potential “national security externalities” associated with energy imports, particularly disruptions in supply by unstable trading partners. Rising natural gas prices at the start of the decade had prompted the government to support the idea of a new pipeline to augment supplies from Alaska to support future US energy demands. The country would have also had to rely increasingly on natural gas imports from Canada and Liquid natural gas imports from less friendly nations such as Russia, which would have carried significant energy security risks. Europe, for example, is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and in the last two decades, supply disruptions and price increase have been linked to political motivations. The proliferation of fracking technology has allowed the US to ensure its energy security and allowed it to extend more energy options to Europe.

Cost-benefit Analysis

Hydraulic fracturing has been touted by some as one of the most important energy discoveries in the last half-century. The technique has allowed the US to boost its oil and gas production significantly, which has led to several benefits. Experts have argued that whether or not a society continues to benefit from fracking will be dependent on local communities living in areas close to drilling sites or potential drilling sites. The local communities need to establish whether local benefits outweigh local costs and vice versa. To do that, authorities should provide adequate information to the community so that all the stakeholders are aware of the benefits and adverse effects of such activities on their well-being and that of the environment.


More in Environment