Written by: Esha Kataria ’24
Edited by: Owen Wogmon ’23
If you watched the first 2020 vice presidential debate, you know that Mike Pence repeatedly attacked the Biden administration by claiming it would ban fracking, while VP candidate Kamala Harris again and again denied this claim. This exchange went on for several minutes, with both candidates fervently defending their positions without ever explicitly talking about what fracking is or its implications for the environment and economy. So, let’s do that now.
There are many ways in which we extract fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and natural gas) from shale rock formations deep underground for combustion to generate electricity and heat, and fracking is one of them. Fracking—also known as hydraulic fracturing— is the process by which this rock is permeated with high-pressure water in order to extract oil and natural gases. More specifically, high-pressure water along with additives (fracking fluid) is pumped underground to form fissures in the rock. Next, wells are drilled vertically and then horizontally across the shale layer, increasing contact between the wellbore and rock. This makes it easier to extract the natural gas. As fracking fluid is injected into the rock at high pressure, gas (mostly methane) is pushed out of the well and extracted. The figure below further diagrams this process .
Between 2000 and 2015, the number of hydraulically fractured wells increased by nearly 11 times, illustrating the scale at which a fracking boom is occuring. The US has been able to double its oil production in the past ten years, and fracking accounted for nearly 59 percent of total American oil production as of 2018. A 2016 study found that in addition to lowering fuel costs, this boom created 4.3 million domestic jobs and added $548 billion to the GDP of the United States .
In addition to contributing to economic growth and stability, fracking also harnesses the use of the cleanest fossil fuel. Power plants that combust natural gas emit 50% less greenhouse gases compared to power plants that rely entirely on coal  as natural gas reduces “emissions for CO2, particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and metals such as mercury (Hg) associated with electricity generation” . Fracking has dramatically increased our gas resources , while decreasing America’s dependence on OPEC oil .
Yet, hydraulic fracturing comes with great environmental costs. For instance, because fracking is water-intensive, requiring around 2-20 million gallons of water for a single well, it is depleting water sources such as streams and creating competition for water. Fracking also generates great amounts of wastewater, most of which is unusable and requires even more scarce resources to be treated. This wastewater can flow back up to the surface and contaminate the environment, if not handled properly. In addition, the fluids used in fracking are toxic and carcinogenic, meaning that they contain substances that can cause cancer. When the steel casing and cement that border the well, serving as a barrier between the fluids and the environment, corrode overtime, these fluids as well as methane leak into the groundwater and atmosphere. In many cases, fracking has shown to contaminate groundwater wells and aquifers which supply our drinking water. Fracking can even cause earthquakes through its high-pressure injection of fluids, which can interfere with a fault zone, a space where two pieces of rocks fracture in the Earth’s crust. Interfering with a fault zone can accelerate the movement of these two rocks relative to each other, creating an earthquake . Most importantly, fracking releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas and air pollutant that exacerbates climate change. Methane has been shown to heat Earth’s atmosphere 80x more than the same amount of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released. The figure below illustrates the increased presence of methane in our atmosphere . There is evidence linking the increase in methane in the atmosphere to fracking operations where 2-6% of the gas collected leaks, vents, or flares .
Moreover, these operations require high-power diesel engines, drills, compressors, and trucks that emit carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides . A 2015 study led by John Worden of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory used satellites and other measures to conclude that “fossil fuels were responsible for between 12 and 19 million tons of this additional methane” referring to the spike in atmospheric methane since 2006 . Since methane contributes to global warming and fracking emits methane through natural gas extraction and combustion, it is linked to global warming. Moreover, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that 45% of US gas supply will come from shale gas by 2035 . This means that the demand for fracking will only increase, giving way to even more environmental damage. If we aren’t careful, our climate crisis could become even worse.
I am not, however, arguing that we should completely ban fracking. A complete ban is predicted to lower our production, increase our reliance on imported fuel, worsen our trade deficit, and increase inflation . Rather, until we are able to make the complete switch to renewables, additional regulations need to be put in place on fracking. The first step is to rejoin the Paris Agreement, which the US withdrew from in 2017 under the Trump administration. Under this agreement, every country agrees to keep the global temperature rise below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, the current administration is attempting to increase shale production by rolling back regulations for fracking operations on public lands. These regulations include standards on wastewater management and well construction, as well as the disclosure of chemical use by fracking companies. In addition, the administration is auctioning off millions of acres of land for drilling to oil and gas developers . All of these policies will only worsen climate change by encouraging fracking companies to further exploit our environment for monetary gain. On the other hand, the Biden administration aims to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, invest in clean energy, and terminate new oil and gas leasing on federal land . These are clearly two very different approaches to our looming climate crisis. It is evident that if we don’t regulate our fracking industry and hold them accountable for the emissions they are releasing, climate change will persist and worsen as greenhouse gas emissions rise with greater demand for fossil fuel energy. Combatting fracking and slowly transitioning to renewable energy is the only way in which we can save our environment. President-elect Joe Biden's recent victory is a step forward in ensuring that climate change and the controversial issue of fracking is properly addressed. However it is also our individual responsibility to inform others about the long term impact of such environmental policies and advocate for sustained change.
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