Fracking: Drilling for the Truth

Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, is a 60 year old practice of pumping high pressure water into shale rock thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. The pressurized water is pumped through cement encased pipes at pressures reaching 9000 pounds per square inch.

The treated water is forced into small cracks in the gas-rich shale rock, resulting in the breaking of the rock and the release of natural gas that would otherwise be unobtainable. Hydraulic fracturing is a safe, economically efficient way to drill for natural gas, create jobs, and lessen America’s dependency on foreign oil. Safety is always an important factor when considering new methods for obtaining raw energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural and shale gas.

The process of fracking can be considered relatively safe when compared to oil drilling and mining. For example, in 2010 an offshore drilling station suffered a malfunction in a blow back valve that caused a massive explosion killing 11 people and spilling an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (Center for Biological Diversity, 2011). While the cost of lost lives is immeasurable, the costs of lost profits from the spilling oil, and the clean-up, are astronomical.

The consequences of oil spills are not only immediate, but can also be felt for years after. Similar to the BP oil spill, in 1989 the Exxon Valdez ship ran aground spilling an estimated 750 thousand barrels of crude oil, an amount that equals almost 10 million gallons, into the waters of Prince William Sound. Litigation from this incident alone was continued into 2008 and cost the Exxon corporation $507.5 billion in punitive damages (The Whole Truth, 2008). These costs are then shared among the end user of oil, which is the American population. In the same vein as oil drilling, coal mining can be a hazardous way to obtain raw materials to be converted into energy.

There have been many well documented cases of mining disasters and accidents. In the same year as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an accident at a gold and copper mine near Copiapo, Chile trapped 33 miners more than 2,000 feet underground (New York Times, 2011). Beyond the obvious dangers of a cave in, there are even dangers associated with surviving the cave in but becoming confined for an extended period of time, as were the 33 men. According to J. Davitt McAteer, a mine-safety consultant who led the Mine safety and Health Administration for former president Clinton, the first concern is sanitation.

The obvious aspects of close confinement for long periods of time is how to keep the air and water needed to survive clean, and what to do about the volume of waste produced by 33 gown men (New York Times, 2010). Luckily for these miners the circumstances surrounding their imprisonment were favorable enough that they could survive longer than any trapped miners in history. While the story surrounding these 33 men and their underground prison of more than 2 months has a happy ending, the majority of mining accidents do not. Since 1976 in the United Sates alone there have been 17 mining disaster (a disaster is defined as an accident or incident that results in five or more people killed) that have resulted in a total loss of 213 lives (United States Mine Rescue Association, 2011).

Again, while the loss of lives is hard to put a value on, the lost time and resources, damage to equipment, and devastation of mining boom towns is all very costly, and in the end the consumer is the one who pays for it. Conversely, there have been no recorded deaths of workers caused by fracking accidents. Fracking, however, is not completely without potential for danger.

Most recently is the accident that occurred in Pennsylvania, where officials believe that the source of the problem was the steel coupling beneath the well’s blowout valve failed and allowed thousands of used fracking water to spill onto the ground. There were no explosions, no methane release, and no injuries (McGraw, 2011). The main concern after this incident is the quality of the local water supply. So what can be done about the dangers of spillage and contamination? More regulations are needed to monitor this relatively young form of energy collection.

With more regulations, more jobs are needed to enforce the regulations on the industry. Any company looking to start a hydraulic fracturing well will need to go through many channels to even begin breaking ground. Some of the federal agencies that need to give approval are United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and even possibly the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or United States Forest Service (USFS) if leases for land are needed (Morris and Smith, 2010). This does not even take into account the multiple state and local agencies that will have to approve a new fracking well. With an increase in interest in fracking comes an increase in applications for wells.

This will invariably cause a high demand for people who are able to look over and approve these applications, but also cause an increased need for people to inspect and regulate these wells during both construction and operation. Ben Grumbles (2011), president of the Clean Water America Alliance, even agrees that while fracking has been performed safely in many places over its 60 year lifespan, the impact on local water supplies, air quality, and water ecosystems needs more attention and research dollars. He goes on to state that

“With participation from federal agencies, key stakeholders, and legal scholars, state officials should develop model codes and framework for more effective state regulations.” (page 4) Federal and state government are not the only industries that can benefit from expansion of hydraulic fracturing. When a fracking company sets up shop in a small town in North Dakota a boom town quickly springs up. In towns like Williston, North Dakota the average income is $57,000, with the highest paid people working for the fracking companies (Ellis, 2011).

However, it is not just the fracking and oil industry rapidly expanding out in North Dakota; other “everyday” jobs are increasing in demand and pay. For example, while many fast food chains across the country offer starting employee’s minimum wage, the average wage in Williston’s fast food industry is $15 an hour (Ellis, 2011). With any influx in people housing can quickly become scarce.

This would increase the need in the house construction market, which has been very weak over the past few years in every other part of the country. While boomtowns are an amazing way to obtain a quick boost to the economy, to truly be a great replacement for other forms of energy natural and shale gas need to be useful for more than just heating homes and cooking food on our stoves. This is where companies like Honda come in. Honda is the first maker of a car that can run on compressed natural gas, but they are not the only ones using this technology.

Many city busses run on natural gas. Studies have shown that vehicles powered by liquefied natural gas, propane, or compressed natural gas emit less carbon-monoxide, less carbon-dioxide, and less nitrogen-oxide than traditional gas engines (McGraw, 2011). Couple this with the fact that that natural gas’ higher octane results in a reduction of costs by about one half to one third that of the cost of gasoline on an energy-equivalent measure (Wojdyla, 2012) and the fact that natural gas here in America is very abundant, and it is plain to see that converting our cars to run on natural gas is not only a smart idea, but also makes financial sense.

With an estimated 493 trillion cubic feet of gas underneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York senator John Kerry of Massachusetts once referred to America as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas (McGraw, 2011). While this statement may seem a bit outlandish, advancements in hydraulic fracturing has led to an eight fold increase in shale gas production over the past 10 years in America alone. It is estimated that with that on such an amount of gas the United States could run for 20 years if we were to maintain the current levels of natural gas use (McGraw, 2011).

Currently coal and oil account for the majority of energy production in the United States, and with their increased cost President Obama is calling for an alternative to help alleviate the energy pains people are feeling. In a recent release from the White House President Obama has stated he has goals of reducing our dependency on foreign oil, and his desire to develop more domestic energy sources. Ultimately Mr. Obama wants for America to be generating 80 percent of the nation’s electricity by means of clean energy sources including solar, nuclear, and efficient natural gas by the end of 2035 (The Department of Energy, 2011).

During 2011 the United States increased its production of natural gas by an estimated 7.4 percent, a clear sign of this administration’s desire to become energy independent. Related to the increase in natural gas and crude oil production, the amount of oil and natural gas imports has declined since 2008 (Zichal, 2012). If these trends continue it is not hard to imagine a situation in which America becomes a powerhouse in the world’s energy sector.

This would not only lead to energy independence, but also a product that the United States could export for profit. By looking at the information above it is easy to see that fracking is already relatively safe, but with a few more regulations in place it can become the safest, most effective way for obtaining energy from the earth. It is also evident that natural gas obtained through fracking can have a positive impact on jobs by creating many new opportunities for people to work, and with jobs comes financial stability and less strain on the government to support these families.

Finally, while the United States obviously uses natural gas to heat it’s homes, and cook it’s food, advancements in the uses for natural gas, and the abundant amount under the United States, makes it a good contender as a replacement of crude oil and coal. In summation, while fracking is a controversial method of obtaining natural gas, it can be said that it is the best method for obtaining energy independence and creating jobs here in America. Resources

Center for Biological Diversity (2011) Catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico: Devastation Persists http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/dirty_energy_development/oil_and_gas/gulf_oil_spill/index.html

The Department of Energy (2011) President Obama to Outline Plan for America’s Energy Security. www.doe.gov/articles/president-obama-ouline-plan-americas-energy-security

Ellis, B (2011) Land a job in a North Dakota boomtown http://money.cnn.com/2011/10/28/pf/America_boomtown_jobs/index.htm

MCGRAW, S. (2011). DRILLING DOWN: FACT VS FICTION IN THE GREAT FRACKING DEBATE. Popular Mechanics, 188(9), 104.

McGraw, S. (2011). Pennsylvania Fracking Accident: What Went Wrong www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/coal-oil-gas/pennsylvania-fracking-ac cident-what-went-wrong-5598621

Morriss III, J. C., & Smith, C. D. (2010). The Shales and Shale-Nots: Environmental Regulation of Natural Gas Development. (Cover story).Energy Litigation Journal, 9(4), 1-23.

New York Times (2010) Hazards of Long Confinement http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/world/americas/25MINE_text.html

New York Times (2011) Chile Mining Accident (2010) http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/c/chile_mining_accident_2010/index.html

United States Mine Rescue Association (2011) Historical Data on Mine Disasters in the United States www.usmra.com/saxsewell/historical.htm

The Whole Truth (2008) History of the Exxon Valdez oil spill www.wholetruth.net/history.htm

Wojdyla, B. (2012). Should You Convert Your Car To Natural Gas? www.popularmechanics.com/cars/how-to/maintenance/should-you-convert-your-car-to-natural-gas

Yale Environment 360 (2011) Forum: Just how safe is ‘Fracking’ of Natural gas? http://www.tarrytownenvironmental.org/images/stories/yaleenv360_forum_howsafeisfracking.pdf

Zichal, H. (2012). Increasing Energy Security www.doe.gov/articles/increasing-energy-security