Fracking is a process used to extract oil and natural gas from the earth below. Oil producers drill down into the earth and inject liquids at high pressure to fracture the layers and pockets of rock that could hold the gold they are looking for.
Think about it like sticking a straw into a glass of chocolate milk and blowing bubbles. That extra pressure has to go somewhere, and when you’re talking high pressure and a few hundred feet below the surface, it shatters its way out of the initial pocket of earth, releasing all of the trapped oil and gas along the way. With fracking, there are no fun chocolatey bubbles that come up out of the glass, but it does allow oil producers to extract more oil and gas from a well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are some unexpected consequences of fracking, like contaminated water wells and even earthquakes, but because fracking happens underground and uses a proprietary mix of chemicals, it is a widely misunderstood practice that has sparked controversy around the world.
Being such an incendiary topic that so few people truly technically understand, people get emotional, which makes logical discourse difficult or impossible. These same characteristics make it a great fit for the Kialo debate platform, where the public can come together to submit arguments for and against any topic in a public forum.
In this case, the upper-level arguments are concise and ostensibly simple, but each one is multi-layered. Arguments against fracking stack up based on the body of evidence that has been compiled, but from my perspective, seem to lack a specific issue or set of issues that make a compelling case for banning fracking completely.
The two stand-out issues when it comes to fracking concern the environmental effects of fracking. These manifest themselves in the form of contaminated groundwater down below and adverse health effects up on the surface. Let’s dive into those first.
Groundwater becomes contaminated by fracking because, just as pockets of oil and gas are released by fracking, so are pockets of freshwater or even new openings into large underwater aquifers. The fracking boom in the early 2000s in the northeastern United States caused widespread contamination of the groundwater and even an explosion of a water well that had become contaminated with a significant amount of combustible oil and gas products.
The visual that immediately comes to mind for me is the scene in Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, where a resident who had leased his land to an energy company to produce natural gas on has water so contaminated that it can be lit on fire from his kitchen faucet. The full documentary walks through the craziness of the fracking boom in the northeastern United States and shows how the fracking boom even caused one landowner’s water well to explode. How’s that for an energy boom?
With so many locals chasing the promise of hundreds of thousands of dollars of signing bonuses and lease payments in what many were calling the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, far too many residents had signed leases before they knew just how much it would change their lives for the worse.
The discussion really heats up under the environmental impacts of fracking, where several pillars of truth have been anchored.
One interesting function of the public discourse format is that we are able to see viewpoints that might otherwise not rise to the surface. The discussion about fracking-induced earthquakes is an example of that. One Kialo user notes that fracking causes earthquakes and another user basically replied “so what,” noting that the earthquakes are small and haven’t caused any damage. It’s an interesting perspective that, if nothing else, gets people thinking and talking about the issues from both sides.
A look at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) site about induced earthquakes notes that most induced, or human-caused, earthquakes are not stemming from fracking, but from oil industry wastewater injection wells. These wells similarly inject new liquid into the earth, but are simply returning the water that comes up with the oil extraction process.
This is typically done without any added pressure, but can still result in earthquakes. The USGS site states that, “In Oklahoma, less than 10% of the water injected into wastewater disposal wells is used hydraulic fracturing fluid. Most of the wastewater in Oklahoma is saltwater that comes up along with oil during the extraction process.” That is an interesting fact and helps put the discussion into perspective.
In summary, while the majority of induced earthquakes are not caused by fracking, which causes only 1–2% of induced earthquakes, the majority of induced earthquakes are caused by the oil industry. I’ll chock that up to another fun fact learned from browsing Kialo and digging into the discussions and questions that surface as a result.
Those arguing for fracking note that fracking taps into valuable underground natural gas resources that have the potential to decrease domestic dependence on foreign imports. According to the EIA, the United States became a net exporter of natural gas in 2017 for the first time in nearly 60 years thanks to the fracking boom.
Natural gas may be a local energy resource that we can tap into to power our lives, but so are solar, wind, energy storage, and hydroelectric. Those clean, renewable energy resources are just as “American” as locally produced natural gas and create energy we use to power our lives without the nasty emissions, flammable water, or pollution caused by fracked natural gas.
The debate about fracking is nuanced but easily digestible and in the time I have spent digging into it on Kialo, I have learned quite a bit more about it. Informed decisions, informed votes, and informed people are our best hope at taking steps to affect positive change.
Head over to Kialo today to contribute to the discussion and to form your own answer for the question of the day: Should fracking be banned?
*This post is a part of a sponsored series about Kialo.
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