Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking,” is a process of extracting natural gas from deep below the earth’s surface. While the technique is decades old, new technology enables deeper horizontal drilling at lower costs. The advance has already provided hundreds of thousands of jobs and a huge expansion in proven natural gas reserves.
Fracking’s critics are encouraged by a popular (but wildly disingenuous) documentary, contending that the process potentially allows dangerous chemicals and gas to leak into water supplies. Some also argue that burning gas is insufficiently pristine and should not be allowed.
These beliefs may be sincere, but they are both mistaken and misguided. In fact, those who profess concern for our environment should be among fracking’s biggest fans. Here’s why:
In electricity generation, coal is the main alternative to natural gas, and coal mining poses significantly higher risks to both the environment and workers who extract it: Coal mines kill off workers at twice the rate of oil and natural gas extraction combined. Yet coal and gas provide approximately the same amount of the country’s overall energy supply, around 20 percent each.
Meanwhile, no energy source is completely cost-free environmentally, but natural gas comes much closer than most. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson — hardly a shill for “Big Oil & Gas” — has stated that she is “not aware of any proven case where the ‘fracking’ process itself affected water.”
To be sure, out of hundreds of thousands of wells, a few may have resulted in some contamination. In those instances, drillers should be held responsible just like anyone else. Potential lawsuits provide a strong incentive for companies to impose their own rigorous safety procedures, regardless of any new or existing regulations.
Relative cleanliness also applies to burning gas. Replacing “dirty” coal with “clean” wind or solar is not feasible at this time, and given the magnitude of energy required to sustain industrialized civilization, may never be. Among the sources that are currently capable of providing the energy needed to preserve the comforts, conveniences and broadened horizons this way of life has provided for humanity, by all environmentalist measures, natural gas is much cleaner than its leading fossil-fuel competitors, coal and oil: When burned it releases less carbon dioxide, less carbon monoxide, less nitrogen oxide, less sulfur dioxide and less mercury.
Taking into consideration these and other current realities, many will find environmentalists’ opposition puzzling. That opposition is a change for these groups, as Ronald Bailey of the Reason Foundation recently pointed out:
The national green lobbies initially welcomed shale gas. In 2009, for example, Robert Kennedy Jr., head of the Waterkeeper Alliance, called it “an obvious bridge fuel to the ‘new’ energy economy.” Local environmental activists were not as enthusiastic, arguing that fracking contaminates drinking water and causes other forms of pollution. After a while, some of the national lobbies began to come around to the locals’ side. In the words of the journalist Matt Ridley, “it became apparent that shale gas was a competitive threat to renewable energy.” Josh Fox, director of the anti–natural gas documentary Gasland, put it bluntly on Kennedy’s radio show: “What’s really happening here is not a battle between natural gas and coal. What’s happening here is a battle between another dirty fossil fuel and renewable energy.”
If that’s really the battle, “renewables” have already lost, because they are not currently capable of providing the amount of energy needed, and scaling them up results in a growing array of their own environmental problems. As Russ Harding, Mackinac Center senior environmental analyst, has pointed out, “renewable energy” is too expensive to be viable, and mandates imposing its use lead to skyrocketing energy costs and more unemployment.
Michigan’s natural gas and oil industry currently employs more than 179,000 workers, and makes up 4.4 percent of the state's economy. Some state legislators want an outright ban of hydraulic fracturing here, but that’s unlikely. “Fracking” is cleaner, safer and better for the environment than current alternatives. If their real goal is less pollution, environmentalists should embrace this technology rather than trying to halt it.
Jarrett Skorup is a research associate for online engagement at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.