Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To Frack Or Not to Frack, That Is the Question

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist who's very skeptical of the claims of the gas drilling industry concerning the safety of fracking. He has an interesting, if lengthy, piece in the New York Review of Books in which he lays out his concerns on the subject.

Yet, on the other hand, Peter Aldhous of New Scientist is reporting on a study that suggests that fracking poses no more risk to the environment, or at least to groundwater, than conventional drilling methods. He writes:
Don't blame fracking for environmental problems associated with extracting gas from shale. That's the message of a new report from the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, released on the opening day of the AAAS meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

The US is riding the wave of a shale gas boom driven by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing - in which the rock is injected with water, sand and chemical additives at high pressure to release trapped methane.

[L]ead author Charles "Chip" Groat hopes the report will help regulators worldwide separate "fact from fiction". Reviewing existing studies, Groat's team could find no evidence linking groundwater contamination to fracking operations many hundreds of metres below.

A recent New Scientist analysis came to a similar conclusion. But this doesn't mean that shale gas extraction is benign, as the Texas team's review of the industry's track record revealed.
Groat's team studied instances of violations of environmental regulations in four states and found that in 21 out of 72 such cases there were "substantial" environmental consequences, but here is the key point in the report:
The problems were not caused by the process of fracking itself, but instead related to issues like ruptured well casings that also affect conventional gas production, or surface spills of chemicals or wastewater. "We found no direct evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself had contaminated groundwater," says Groat. "We found that most of the violations were at or near the surface."
As with the controversy surrounding climate change there seem to be competent, sincere people on both sides of the issue. Perhaps we won't know who's right until we've been fracking for a while longer, but it's certain that we'll never know who's right if we declare a moratorium on the process. Meanwhile, with so many benefits to be gained, and so much uncertainty about the nature and extent of the risks, it seems unwise to argue that we shouldn't proceed with extraction, accompanied by reasonable safeguards, just because there's some risk that some harm might befall the environment.

It seems, at least to me, that the proper course is to demand that drillers take all reasonable precautions and then reap the benefits of the fuel that's there for us. If it turns out that fracking is found to pose a serious hazard then let's address those hazards as they arise, just as we do with any other activity in life (e.g. automobile transportation) where the benefits are considered too great to forego.