Fracking Faux Pas

We are living in a time when money and special interest groups disproportionately influence our representatives’ decisions. While natural gas production may have slowed slightly in the last year due to declining oil prices, do not be fooled. The fossil fuel industry is not going away. In the United states, over the last decade, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether or not hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is a sensible endeavor. Public policy has done very little to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and with the financial backing and political pull of large gas companies, the debate has been fairly one-sided.

In recent years, natural gas has been gaining momentum as a potentially viable replacement for coal and oil, which are both undeniably causing reprehensible damage to the ozone and the environment. This burgeoning form of energy is marketed as a ‘transitional’ fuel that will decrease carbon dioxide emissions. It is a commonly held position amongst government officials that natural gas extraction must be a primary focus for the United States in the years to come. Even the Environmental Protection Agency has taken the stance that “natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future.”

To understand what is at stake, one must first know the full scope of the fracking process. Chemical water is forcefully injected thousands of feet underground in order to disrupt shale formations and release natural gas that can then be used as an energy source. Shale gas basins are scattered throughout the midwest and Texas, as well as the Marcellus shale, which is located under Pennsylvania and the surrounding area. There are trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus shale alone, which would provide enough energy for the United States for more than 45 years.

Fracking mapHalliburton and other natural gas companies see this resource as a profitable opportunity and have cleverly disguised their plot as a necessary step towards energy independence and a sustainable future. The notion that natural gas is an indispensable, progressive resource is fundamentally flawed. One step forward, two steps back, as a groundwork for policy making, especially as it relates to the impending climate crisis, is asinine and entirely irresponsible. There is a vast amount of evidence suggesting that there are adverse consequences arising from hydraulic fracturing that could otherwise be avoided if preventative measures are taken.

By now, the horrific incidences of flaming faucets and the health issues that have been linked to natural gas drilling are well known, yet the danger extends beyond our immediate purview. Not only is our air and water at serious risk of contamination, but so too is the ozone. Methane and other ruinous hydrocarbon emissions are a result of natural gas production. Studies show that methane accounts for at least 14 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, but due to its greater warming capacity (25 times greater), as compared to carbon dioxide, it is responsible for more than one-third of today’s anthropogenic warming. Natural gas is the primary producer of methane. Mitigating methane emissions is therefore a crucial step in efficiently managing climate change. However, from 2010 to 2020, methane emissions stemming from oil and gas are expected to increase by 35 percent. If the EPA stands by their statement that natural gas is an important feature of the United States’ clean energy future, policy must be enacted to deal with the plethora of methane escaping into the atmosphere.

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Global methane emissions by sector

We have been sold a half-truth. Our fixation on targeting carbon dioxide to combat climate change has played to the advantage of the gas industry. Yes, it is true that natural gas production emits less carbon dioxide than that of traditional fossil fuels, but what is purposely left out is the very real fact that methane is being discharged at alarming rates.

California, a so-called a haven for progressive thinking and green ideals, is currently under attack. The natural gas industry has been allowed to belligerently invade residential, low-income, minority communities. Lack of regulation on both the state and federal level has amounted to a blatant disregard for human health. Drilling is occurring in highly populated areas, including near schools, where children and citizens are reportedly experiencing a variety of symptoms from frequent nose bleeds to neurological disorders. This is not a freak coincidence. People are getting sick from the harmful gas leaking into the air and permeating groundwater systems during the fracking process. Not to mention the litany of other disturbing chemicals found in hydraulic fracturing fluid that is radiating below the earth’s surface and seeping into our tap water and food. This same gas that is causing nausea, muscle pain and brain deterioration is polluting the ozone. We can see first hand children slowly dying, cancers developing and communities being destroyed, but the consequences are even more far-reaching, threatening not only the United States, but the entire planet.

The lack of regulation has led to an out of control, unrestrained onslaught of natural gas drilling by large energy companies with economic interests greatly exceeding incentives for environmental protection. The fossil fuel lobbies are committed to holding onto their industry despite the threat it poses to public health and environmental sustainability. Natural gas has become their next venture as oil and coal lose reputability. The fossil fuel industry is unwilling to relinquish their power, using natural gas as the proposed “gateway” into renewables. Framing natural gas as a transitional fuel has helped to persuade politicians to promote it as a necessary and progressive energy option. These morally-bankrupt companies have made the lack of carbon dioxide emissions a selling point, but they are hiding the full story. Their blatant disregard for the consequences of methane emissions is further complicating the climate crisis, an existential dilemma for which there is no solution in sight.

The data is overwhelmingly stacked against natural gas, yet nothing is being done. A Greenhouse Gas Neutral Progression Plan should be taken into consideration as a way to tackle this issue before it spirals out of our control. Similar to a carbon neutral concept, a greenhouse gas neutral plan would require the United States to limit the expansion of fracking for natural gas by equating this increase to the decrease in coal and oil production, as measured by total anthropogenic warming. For natural gas to be taken seriously as a transitional fuel, it is absolutely mandatory that the industry does not add to the overall degradation of the ozone. As stricter regulation undermines the industry’s profits, natural gas will become less attractive, positioning policy to favor renewable energies. A new study, published in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science, maps out a renewable energy plan estimating “80–85% of existing energy to be replaced by 2030 and 100% replaced by 2050.”

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Projected map of 100% renewable energy in the United State by 2050

We must regulate fracking expeditiously before we fall victim to the same pitfalls of coal and oil. History is on a course to repeat itself. Today, there are only two states, Vermont and New York, who have completely banned hydraulic fracturing. Throughout the United States there must be a demand for stringent oversight until the long-term goal of completely halting natural gas production can be achieved. Americans must reflect and reroute in order to avoid the forthcoming ramifications of climate change. Natural gas is by no means the flawless boon it presents itself to be. If it has any intention of serving as a transitional fuel, attention must be paid to greenhouse gas emissions with the understanding that methane is more destructive to the ozone than carbon dioxide.

The highest priority for policymakers, industry, and the public should be establishing renewables as the primary energy producers without delay. The hydraulic fracturing industry will extend this “transitional” period as long as they can. Limitations on fracking expansion and careful regulation are key to fostering conditions conducive to a renewable energy trajectory. The time has come to end the fossil fuel monopoly that the United States has known for far too long. We must end fracking before fracking ends us.


Written by Philip Finkelstein