Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking” is an understandably divisive issue. On one side of the debate, environmental advocates express concern over groundwater contamination, frack hits, and earthquakes. On the other side of the debate, the energy sector and free market proponents contend that fracking increases domestic oil production, drives down gas prices, and generates energy with significantly lower CO2 emissions.
In the most recent undercard debate, Republican presidential candidate and former New York Governor George Pataki went as far as to champion fracking as a significant factor in the fight against climate change, pointing out that the United States is the only nation to have lowered carbon-dioxide emissions since 1995.
Unfortunately, as with many politicized issues, the only position that doesn’t seem to garner consideration is the moderate one. Both sides make valid points; on one hand, fracking can be dangerous, especially when groundwater contamination threatens Americans’ health and safety. Yet Pataki’s comments hit on an interesting point as well – fracking has both economic and environmental benefits, when compared to reasonable alternatives. While a complete transition to renewable energy sources may be ideal, we just aren’t there yet, and fracking utilizes hard to reach resources, contributing to North American energy independence while comparatively cutting environmental impact in relation to traditional methods of extraction.
Still, the dangers that accompany the practice are concerning. While earthquakes are rare and small, groundwater contamination and frack hits (where the high-pressure mixture leaks through to and blows out of a nearby well) threaten both the environment and the health and safety of nearby residents.
A little over a month ago, the United States District Court for Wyoming blocked an attempt by the Interior Department to push through fracking safety regulations. These regulations required companies to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process, and allowed for federal inspection of the concrete barriers that line fracking wells on public lands.
These regulations were intended to combat a dangerous alternative – completely unregulated fracking in states with nothing yet in place. Other states, including Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as specific areas in California, Texas, and D.C. have swayed to the other side, banning fracking completely.
A better solution exists, though rarely if ever mentioned in the extremist debate between recklessness and restriction. And the Obama administration’s regulations, even if held to be valid, completely miss the point. Well integrity is important, true; cracks in the concrete lining a well can lead to groundwater contamination and blowouts. That said, we have the technology needed to monitor well pressure in real-time and prevent fracking issues before they happen. With offset frack monitoring, when pressure strays from the threshold, risking a “hit” or contamination, the oil & gas producer can immediately stop the job. The U.S. not only lags behind Canada and other fossil-fuel reliant countries in mandating effective regulations such as pressure monitoring, but few even realize such technologies exist.
Mandating real-time monitoring could effectively cut the risks fracking poses on nearby residents to zero. Additionally, reliable monitoring would meet needs on both sides of the fracking debate. Producers would have a relatively inexpensive way to guard against costly cleanup, plus defend against litigation both by decreasing fracking issues and by providing a way to assess responsibility for issues in areas where multiple producers are working (i.e. when fracking fluid from an unsafe job blows out another producer’s well).
Environmental advocates too, could (and should) be content with effective regulation of the industry. Waging a war against fracking actually works against the battle on CO2 emissions. America isn’t ready to stop using fossil fuels, and banning fracking forces consumers to rely on oil & gas extracted by less environmentally-friendly methods. The chemicals used to extract oil & gas from shale aren’t dangerous if contained within the cement walls of a well, which is reasonably possible if we use the available technology. Furthermore, the environmentally-conscious left would be fighting a battle that can actually be won, advocating an equally economically-conscious solution that has appeal for shale extraction companies.
Americans can either seek moderate regulation or increase reliance on Saudi oil, but it is time both sides of the debate acknowledge the other’s strengths. Fracking encourages North American energy independence and decreases emissions, and unregulated extraction is a dangerous, and potentially costly, endeavor. For once, let’s abandon our extremist positions and work towards a mutually agreeable, sustainable solution.