The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Fracking: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

The process of hydraulic fracturing – shooting water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into underground wells to release natural gas – is a divisive issue: Some say it dumps chemicals into ground water supplies, others argue it causes earthquakes, and still others think it can revolutionize America’s energy industry.

Late last week, the NYT ran a short piece that cited a British seismologist saying two minor (very minor) earthquakes in northern England might have been caused by “fracking”:

The scientist, Brian Baptie, seismic project team leader with the British Geological Survey, said data from the two quakes near Blackpool — one of magnitude 2.3 on April 1, the other of magnitude 1.5 on May 27 — suggested the temblors arose from the same source. Cuadrilla Resources, a British energy company, was conducting hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations at a well nearby when the quakes occurred…

Mr. [Stephen] Horton [a seismologist at the University of Memphis] and others investigated a swarm of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, including one of magnitude 4.7, in an area of central Arkansas where fracking was being conducted. The scientists found that the earthquakes were probably caused not by fracking but by the disposal of waste liquids from the process into other wells. Those wells have since been shut down.

Environmentalists argue that fracking contaminates ground and surface water – a charge the gas companies deny. Here’s the problem: the fracking process begins with a well drilled deep underground. Horizontal passages are then drilled outward from the bottom of the well. Water, sand, and chemicals are pumped at high pressure through the horizontal wells to release natural gas, which is then collected. Gas companies argue the chemical content of the water is negligible and it has never been proven that those chemicals rise into ground water supplies. On the other hand, environmentalists say the downward drilling process, if done poorly, releases chemicals into both ground and surface water. Both arguments are strong, which is why no one can agree whether fracking is a good or bad thing.

The science is not settled; arguments are hurled back and forth by both gas companies and environmentalists. On the earthquake issue, seismologists say it’s possible fracking can cause small earthquakes: “Mr. Horton said that after looking at the British Geological Survey’s analysis of the Blackpool earthquakes, ‘the conclusions are reasonable’.” But, he continued, “the chances of getting a very large earthquake are negligible.” Meanwhile, contaminated water supplies is a hotly-debated issue: there have been cases where fracking has polluted water supplies as a result of poor oversight and procedures, but it does seem that if done correctly, fracking is not nearly as environmentally disruptive as traditional oil and gas extraction.

One thing that is settled are the benefits homegrown natural gas adds to the US energy industry. As chemist and author Rich Trzupek wrote recently:

America has become, in the eyes of energy professionals, the Saudi Arabia of natural gas thanks to shale gas. The DOE estimates that shale gas reserves alone are 750 trillion cubic feet. Combined with other domestic sources of natural gas, the United States has enough natural gas to last for over a century, and the numbers continue to climb…

In areas where shale gas drilling is happening, the good times are rolling. Not only are people making money from the energy sales, jobs are created down the line, from the companies who support drilling operations down to the service industries that provide workers with food and shelter. In eastern Pennsylvania towns that were hit hard with the decline of the steel industry are rising again. Other states with significant shale formations, like Arkansas, Texas and North Dakota tell the same stories.

There is always more to the story than environuts or self interested gas companies will tell you; the one constant thing to expect is that there are good things and bad, benefits and problems, with all aspects of the energy industry. The question then becomes – what will bring the most benefit to the largest number of people, and what is best for the US as a whole?

A consideration that does not get enough weight is security.  It is not just about reducing America’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy sources now and in the future.  It is about promoting the diversity and security of the world’s energy supply by opening up many new sources of production in many new parts of the world.  Europe, for example, may have a shale gas and oil boom of its own, reducing its dependence on both Russia and the Middle East.

Failing to frack increases the chance we must fight.  Let’s learn to frack as cleanly and carefully as possible — but let’s get it done.  Right now, it seems – despite some entirely justified anger from people who live in the frack zone – that extracting America’s vast natural gas resources is the right way to proceed.

Published on October 24, 2011 7:39 pm
  • SC Mike

    Increased natgas production at home will reduce directly the cost of home heating for those with natgas water heaters and furnaces and indirectly for those with electric heating as natgas is deployed in power generating systems for the grid. (Those who rely on propane will not see reductions until the price of its source, oil, declines: domestic expansion of that resource will come slowly while Obama’s in charge.)

    Consider, however, the potential for fracking to alter the status quo in Europe: them stinking Russkies will no longer have the Huns and others over a natgas barrel. Not only will the inhabitants of the EU save some money, but they will also gain a bit more freedom in their foreign policy should they so desire as they wean their economies from Putin’s pipeline goodies. That’s great news!

  • David Billington

    Dr. Mead,

    An article in the Daily Telegraph contends that America is on the verge of recovering not only its energy independence but also much of its lost manufacturing employment.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/8844646/World-power-swings-back-to-America.html

    I don’t know how much of this is true or happening on a scale significant enough to matter, but what the article claims may be worth investigating.

    About fracking, the main problem is (as you note) the care with which it is done. In this regard it is not whether regulation exists but whether there are very clear lines of authority that link specific individuals to unambiguous engineering responsibility (ie. signature responsibility). In the BP disaster last summer, no one could or would say who was in charge. That is not allowed with nuclear energy and it can’t be allowed to happen with fracking.

    I would also underline more clearly that fracking is at best a transitional solution that gives us several more decades to get energy supplies and the machines that use energy on a more sustainable basis for the long-term. I have an article on the motor car of the future that comes close to describing what a hybrid-electric car engine is today. The article appeared on page 1 of Scientific American for January 5, 1918. These things shouldn’t need to take so long.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    “. . . Contaminated water supplies is a hotly-debated issue: there have been cases where fracking has polluted water supplies as a result of poor oversight and procedures, but it does seem that IF DONE CORRECTLY, fracking is not nearly as environmentally disruptive as traditional oil and gas extraction.” [emphasis mine]

    The highlighted words seem to be the critical proviso here. Which in turn makes me wonder: Does everything we do have to be EITHER completely right everywhere all the time, or else completely wrong everywhere all the time? Or is it just barely possible (as you seem to be implying) that fracking can be a very good thing when done right, and a very bad thing when done wrong?

    There is, however, one serious problem with such a nuanced, delicate, case-by-case approach. It would seem to be hopelessly at variance with the boldly dynamic, “with Man all things are possible” Spirit of this Age. The idea that we can approach our energy requirements from the standpoint of the actual needs of real people in real places, rather than through rigidly preconceived, abstract, ideological prisms of Right or Left, puts the focus – you must admit – on a most unfashionable part of the human picture. It centers the lens on who we humans are, and what we have – and haven’t – been made. And even more so on the One who made us, and what He actually may have had in mind in so doing (and therefore, in turn, on how HE might see and judge us and our glorious works). Whereas the real focus, as anyone with any real faith in the human future knows, ought be on Self-Determining Man and what he makes, and on what he can make of himself and everything around him, without regard for pre-existing graces, complexities, limitations or failings either in human or any other creatures. Just take some man-made idea or ideology – it almost doesn’t matter WHICH, only let it be extreme, unflinching and uncompromising – and press it to the uttermost limits of human endurance, and see what you get. What a noble experiment. The weaklings, the unfit and unworthy will suffer and eventually die, of course. But think how much stronger, wiser and more ready those who survive will be for the next man- or nature-made cataclysm! And how much hardier the race as a whole will be – assuming there’s anyone left who’s healthy enough to propagate – for the NEXT glorious level of advance. Ah, the Human Adventure (the last thing we need is for some god of lovingkindness to take all the risk and glory out of it).

    Anyhow, a warm thanks for both the balanced emphasis and the suggestions. But sadly I don’t see much chance of either being heeded in the present political climate, esp. given the literally furious rate and direction in which (on both sides) we are presently “advancing.”

  • Toni

    I don’t know how much the US spends to patrol the Persian Gulf, but it’s some titanic sum. (Especially since Europe has chosen to spend according to the Blue Social Model rather than on defense.)

    Just imagine if we could reduce that sum — so we can spend as much as we need to patrol Asian shipping lanes, per Walking on Water below.

    Frack away!

  • Kenny

    The environmental movement is a movement of the Left, yes? And one of the core beliefs of the Left is that America is too well off and must have its standard of living reduced to make the wealth distribution of the world more equal.

    This, more than any techical concerns over fracking, is what is truly behind the anti-fracking movemnet.

    And as has said before, the radical enviros hate fracking because cheap natural gas makes uneconomical electricity sources like wind mills, solar panels, etc. even more uneconomical.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Failing to frack increases the chance we must fight.

    Not so much. We will fight to keep the sea lanes open so that our allies in EUrope, Japan, South Korea, etc. can continue to import energy they don’t have domestically.

    What fracking will do is reduce our balance of payments deficit, strengthen the dollar, and reassure our creditors that we will be able to repay them. It may allow us to borrow more money longer and postpone replacing the Blue Model. But I don’t see that as a plus.

    Above all, a greater supply of energy means cheaper energy and higher economic growth. All courtesy of the evil oil and gas companies, not the Department of Alternative Energy.

    And the towns in eastern Pennsylvania are not so much rising again as their inhabitants are gaining wealth from royalties. The drillers will be gone soon enough and the boomlet will be over. But the royalty checks will keep on coming, lifting Appalachians out of poverty, if they spend it well.

    Finally as to the environmental problem, aside from the occasional and inevitable accidents, the biggest problem is the disposition of the fracking liquid. More and more it is being recycled instead of being sent to municipal wast facilities.

  • Luke Lea

    I’ve urged my 22 year-old-daughter, who is in her senior year as a Geology major, to consider “going into” fracking here in the Appalachians where we live. Naturally her first response is negative, as anyone might have guessed with all the “arms are for loving” and “save the whales” bumperstickers on her car (SUV actually ;) . Me, I’m thinking of her employment opportunities in a down economy, so I make a few points:

    1. Fracking is a hot new environmental issue and a lot more research is needed to support (or counter) the positions of the energy companies and environmental groups. She doesn’t have to be pro- or anti- fracking to take part in such research, especially since drilling 5000′ deep holes goes through just about every geological strata for the last 4 or 5 hundred million years. That’s gotta be cool.

    2. Fracking is not quite as new as you might think. Thousands of holes have already been dug over the past half century, most of them in Texas, with few well-documented mishaps (emphasis on “well-documented”). The incident involving contaminated drinking water up in Pennsylvania looks to be the exception that proves the rule, much as the BP blowout was with respect to deep wate drilling ;).

    3. You don’t have to go to work in the industry. There will be tons of funding of university research in the years ahead almost certainly, so much money is at stake, not to mention US energy independence.

    4. However, an initial job on a drilling rig would give you invaluable first-hand experience which not many academics will have. You could be a mole!

    Haven’t persuaded her yet though.

  • Jonathan

    You have a good point about how drilling must be done CORRECTLY – there are many documented cases of it NOT being done correctly.
    There is another side to the issue that virtually NOBODY is talking about: That is the the social justice impact of the drilling activity: Gas drillers, landmens, and others involved in the process are routinely lieing to and threatening property owners to gain access to gas reserves.
    For example, there was an article in an Ohio paper recently about a land owner who was told by a landsman that if he didn’t sign the lease he was offered, the drilling company would take his gas through forced pooling and pay him nothing for it – I have heard similar stories from other people of gas companies and contractors claiming rights they don’t have, threatening lawsuits, and in many other ways pushing around locals and landowners.
    This is the real problem with shale development – oil and gas companies have a long history of doing whatever they want to to make money, and then leaving a mess behind for locals to deal with. They make coal companies look good!

  • Mrs. Davis

    oil and gas companies have a long history of doing whatever they want to to make money, and then leaving a mess behind for locals to deal with.

    Yeah, we need people with high morals like investment bankers, higher educators and politicians.

  • notanenvironut

    Walt,
    If you read your comments, you should correct people who call you Doctor, as somebody does in every lengthy thread.
    Otherwise, your right. The chance of negligence on the part of gas companies is negligible. Lots of responsible activities cause earthquakes!

  • Jimmy J.

    There is a new company in Canada (Gasfrac, Inc.) that has developed a fracking process using propane. It is reputed to be much cleaner(though it requires care and skill) than using liquids and is just as effective. The propane is reovered after fracking and then reused. This may be the better technique and cheaper as well. Stay tuned to see how this technique works out

  • http://none geyo

    What are the positive affects about fracking? I need tis tonight!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • J.Morris

    I live in Bakersfield California , although my family is not involved with either enviiromental protectors or oil & gas companies we have been affected greatly by both over the last 50 years. We own apartments in the Bakersfield area and have good decades & bad decades of business closely related to the way public opinion sways to either sides argument and following policy. As an independent I can see both sides reasoning but with all due respect o both sides and much deliberation I believe we owe it to our future stability to move forward carefully and deliberately with this now more popular method of fracking . As the 4 largest oil companies were pushed out of California in the 1980′s I witnessed these very lucrative and important assets moved there national headquarters out of our home town. This left us with a 50% vacancy rate for nearly 10 years . The following ten years were a major struggle for us and only recentlyhave we been able to regain our full occupancy rate . Much of this success has been due to this new boom. So as I see it we have more to lose than gain by trying to curtail this great resource. Although I also have watched many of my family and friends in our small community struggle with pollution contaminations that are most likely the reason we have such a large problem with cancer and other health issues here. Therefore I can also see a real clear reason for regulation and research to continue bettering our procedures. I am so tired of the red vs blue mentality in our country ! We need to all acknowledge that we are all in this together . Wether we like it or not this issue as most all , affect us all , if we tax and restrict oil production too much we give less incentive for monetary sucess as a town, state and country which affect all classes of socioeconomics. And if we don’t regulate enough we put all of our bodies and minds at great risk. Moderation. “Moderation in all things” is a concept I have been taught is the most important thing and once again I find it is true in this case as well . Please all of you reading this, get off your soap boxes and start thinking , speaking and acting in a way that involves maturity , patience, consideration and most importantly mutually respects one another. We can really learn from one another if we will simply continue to try loving one another. And last I would like to just say, “what if it really is all about the hoakie poakie?” Smile smile smile!

  • J.Morris

    The Monterey shale runs from Los Angeles to San Francisco and holds as much as 50 % of the existing amount of oil reserves of Saudi Arabia experts are saying. This could mean a real solution to great state of California’s current economic woes! We can not afford to restrict ourselves from harvesting this incredible natural resource that the fracking method can give us. Drill baby drill and let’s do it the most responsible way we can devise.