Is Fracking Good or Bad?

Originally posted on on May 4, 2021

Why Is It An Emotionally-Charged Issue For Americans

Fracking of oil and gas wells is a conundrum. On one hand, fracking was a key to releasing oil and gas from shale rock, which led to the successful shale revolution that allowed us to buy cheap gasoline and also enabled the US to become self-sufficient in oil and gas for the first time since 1947.

On the other hand, outspoken people have denounced fracking because it pollutes aquifers, its chemicals have allegedly caused health problems, and its responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that may spawn extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires.

Both sides have been carefully documented and presented in a balanced way by a new book that takes the emotions out of fracking.

Despite this, people still argue passionately their positions for or against fracking. It is a political football, and in some cases the science doesn’t seem to matter at all.

Fracking has joined other great emotional debates like creation or evolution, and climate change.

But what lies behind the emotional topic of fracking? Is fracking good or bad? 

The answer depends on where you live. I am a fracking engineer living in Albuquerque. While arranging a talk on fracking in Dallas, the host asked me if fracking was good or bad. Dallas lies in the central corridor of oil and gas interests that extends from Houston up to North Dakota. My answer was diplomatic but I realized he wanted me to say fracking was only good.

But at a different talk in Durango, Colorado, home to many environmentally conscious people, they wanted me to say that fracking was only bad. A woman who had discovered that plastics were made by the oil and gas industry asked me if I wanted to come and talk to her group. I agreed. When she found out I used to be a fracking engineer, she uninvited me.

It depends on your political affiliation. Right-wing voters love fracking, and President Trump was a keen supporter of all things oil and gas. Left-wing liberals hate fracking, and Bernie Sanders announced he wanted to ban fracking when running for the democratic ticket.

It depends on your information source. If you only watch Fox News, the message is that fracking is wonderful because it instigated the shale oil and gas revolution, which has made the US self-sufficient in oil for the first time since 1947.

But if you hear from the Sierra Club or the Environmental Defense Fund, you find out that long-lived plastic trash is gumming up the landfills and oceans of the world, and yes, plastics are made from natural gas liquids that come out of wells that have been fracked in the Marcellus shale.

It depends on your perspective. A modern shale oil or gas well uses about 20 million gallons of water to drill and frac a single well, with often 40 separate fracking operations along the horizontal part of the well. That’s enough water to cover the grassed area of a football stadium to a height of 40 feet (Figure 1). But a rancher who is tapping this aquifer to water his cattle might resist this because it’s possible that the aquifer could dry up.

Figure 1. Volume of water used in fracking a single shale well.

Figure 1. Volume of water used in fracking a single shale well.

In certain oil and gas states, like New Mexico and Pennsylvania for example, drilling and fracking use less than 1% of the total water budget, a tiny portion of the state’s water consumption. In this case, neither answer is wrong.

It depends on whether you are proactive or reactive toward the issue of global warming. If you believe, like the oil and gas company bp, that energy usage is changing from fossil fuels (now about 80% of total) to just 35% of total by 2050, you commit to investing 40% in renewables like offshore wind by 2030.

But if you are unsure that fossil energy is to blame for global warming, or unconvinced that weather extremes are disrupting human populations in an unprecedented fashion, you may adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude and strongly resist any attempts to replace oil and gas production by renewables.

It depends on how exposed you are to fracking data. People will say that fracking contaminates aquifers that supply surface water for drinking. For shale wells deeper than 5,000 ft, the fracs don’t grow up to the aquifers because the aquifers are usually shallower than 1,000 ft. Microseismic data confirm that shale fracs don’t grow in height anywhere near aquifers. So fracking doesn’t directly contaminate aquifers.

Figure 2. A poor cementing job may allow shale-gas to leak up outside the casing into a freshwater aquifer and possibly into a homeowner’s water well.

Figure 2. A poor cementing job may allow shale-gas to leak up outside the casing into a freshwater aquifer and possibly into a homeowner’s water well.

On the other hand, aquifers are occasionally contaminated, due to poorly cementing the well casing to the raw host rock. Gaps in the cement allow gas especially, or even fracking fluid, to leak up from the shale zone to the aquifers. Shale wells, when improperly installed or maintained, have occasionally polluted water supplies.

It depends on your personal bias. If you don’t trust oil and gas companies, you may quietly ignore the science and insist that big fracking operations must directly contaminate the aquifers.  You could justify your opinion by arguing that oil or gas companies will say anything to protect fracking. 

A friend of mine revealed she was asked by a manager of an oil company to change a number that would make the oil reserves she was calculating greater than they really were. She was distressed by this, and eventually left the company. When I asked her, much later, about fracking, she said she believed that fracking did contaminate aquifers because you can’t trust oil companies.

It depends on your access to knowledge of the fracking situation. My friend had not examined the measurements that proved that fracs from shale wells do not grow up and contaminate aquifers. She was satisfied that her distrust of oil companies was all she needed to know.

On the other hand, for too many years, fracking companies (and oil and gas companies) didn’t reveal the chemicals used in their frac fluid recipes. Proprietary law said they didn’t have to. This meant people were not able to get at the truth and assess potential health damages due to chemicals in surface spills, poor cement jobs around well casings, etc.

It’s the strong opinion, when expressed in a loud or dominant way, without a desire to listen or learn from others, that polarizes a relationship and often ends in an emotional standoff. Too often, such has been the case with fracking.

With the Biden administration, climate change has been thrust to the forefront of the US energy future. This is an emotionally charged subject, and its curious that many of the answers above can help explain why people feel so different about climate change.

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