John Grula

The goods and the bads of fracking: and what needs to be done now

The natural gas and oil extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has been in the news as of late and become very controversial.  If you think this article is going to make a knee-jerk environmentalist/left-wing critique of fracking, think again. It’s a complex subject.
Fracking is a relatively new technique that uses large amounts of pressurized water, mixed with sand and chemical additives, to create fractures in shale rock located deep underground. The process frees trapped natural gas (primarily methane, which is comprised of one carbon atom chemically bound to four hydrogen atoms — CH4 — and is gaseous in form) and some oil (longer polymers of carbon atoms which are liquid in form) and allows previously inaccessible natural gas and oil to be extracted from the Earth.
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that is used for heating homes, cooking (think of your gas-powered stove and oven), electricity production, transportation and as an industrial feedstock for manufacturing plastics and other carbon-based materials.

Natural gas burns much more cleanly than other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal. Coal is by far the worst fossil fuel, and not only releases copious amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned, but also other harmful chemicals, including mercury, arsenic and acid rain-causing compounds, such as nitrates and sulfates.
When natural gas is burned it also releases CO2, but only half the amount released by burning coal per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. To the extent we replace coal-burning power plants with natural gas-burning power plants (which is already happening), this will reduce CO2 production and help mitigate global warming.
As a result of the increased use of fracking in recent years, the price of natural gas in the US has plummeted from a high of $12 per million BTUs in 2008 to the current low price of between $3 and $4. This has given a significant boost to the US economy. Substantial job gains have materialized from the expansion of the fracking process itself. In addition, manufacturing job growth has occurred when natural gas has been used, for example, as a feedstock for the synthesis of plastics and in its liquefied form is consumed domestically and also exported as a source of fuel.  According to Daniel Yergin, author of the recent book,
The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, “This is fundamentally improving the competitive position of the United States in the world economy.” 

Having provided the upsides, here are some major downsides to fracking, especially in regard to the state of California. For starters, the process uses huge amounts of water, a problem that a water-starved region such as ours can ill afford. In addition, the harmful chemicals used in the fracking process can contaminate surface bodies of water as well as shallow aquifers that are crucial sources of drinking water. Plus, once the brine and chemical-laced water used for fracking is injected deep underground, it remains contaminated and is essentially lost for any other uses for perhaps hundreds of years or longer.
Another major problem with fracking and the natural gas it produces is leakage of the gas itself (again, mainly CH4) into the atmosphere and water supplies. CH4 is a very potent greenhouse gas and on a molecule-per-molecule basis traps much more heat than does CO2. But because the current atmospheric concentration of CO2 is about 400 parts per million, whereas CH4 comprises less than one part per million, CO2 is still the biggest problem. Nevertheless, CH4 leakage into the atmosphere is a major concern with respect to global warming and must be kept to an absolute minimum. CH4 is also highly explosive and any leakage into water supplies carries the risk of causing drinking water to become flammable and explosive.
Perhaps the clincher in the case against fracking in California is a recent report in the journal
Science that increased fracking in the central and eastern US has led to a dramatic surge in the number of earthquakes in those regions. According to Science, three relatively large (magnitude 5.0 and larger) fracking-induced earthquakes struck near Prague, Okla., (normally a seismically inactive area) in November 2011. While 5.0 earthquakes are not large by California standards, it is also the case that small-to-moderately sized earthquakes can sometimes trigger much bigger earthquakes. The last thing California needs is a human activity such as fracking that can increase our risk of devastating temblors.
At the very least, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature need to declare an immediate moratorium on any further fracking in our state until all the risks are more clearly understood. That probably goes for the rest of the nation as well. This practice, which puts human and environmental health in jeopardy, while also continuing our dependence on fossil fuels, needs to be phased out as we phase in more renewable energy sources and increased energy efficiency.

This article was originally published in the Pasadena Weekly on September 11, 2013