Part two: The debate over emissions, flowback and risk
This is the second article looking at the issue of fracking in Michigan. Part one discussed earthquakes, water usage and misinformation in the media about the process.
The popular fears about hydraulic fracturing, "fracking," tend to be overblown or based on ignorance about what can seem like a confusing process.
But there are legitimate debates among experts about ongoing or potential harms. These include issues of flowback, which is the water-based solution that flows to the surface as a result of fracking, leaking, greenhouse gas emissions from methane and general debate about risk.
Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, says he worries about the effects of drilling, which as the process increases, could damage the environment.
"Fracking is an enabling technology and is actually a relatively small part of the entire process," he said. "By far and away, the environmental issues, the human health issues, (and) the climate change issues depend much more on what happens other than fracking."
However, several experts were careful to put these problems in context and explained that there is a trade-off, or cost, to produce any type of energy.
Regarding issues like flowback and contamination, geologist Hal Fitch said Michigan carefully monitors and regulates the fracking process. In the state, waste is required to be stored in metal containers. Other states allow open wells prior to disposal. Companies today also are able to clean and reuse the water in other wells.
One ongoing issue is over greenhouse gas emissions.
Natural gas generally is seen as a cleaner and "greener" alternative to oil and coal. In the past six years, the United States has led the world in carbon emissions reductions, largely because of the explosion in natural gas extraction brought on by the fracking process.
But in recent years, there have been competing studies over how much methane leaks from natural gas wells and the effects that may have on greenhouse gas emissions. Some scientists, most notably at Cornell University, maintain that methane leaks may be as damaging to the environment as the emissions from coal plants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other groups disagree. Earlier this year, the EPA estimated that methane emissions were down substantially over the past two decades, despite a 40 percent increase in natural gas production.
Donald Siegel, a professor of Earth sciences at Syracuse University, said this is an issue to keep an eye on.
"The intellectual leadership against fracking are reasonably concerned that methane loss during production (individually minor but combined plausibly meaningful) could exacerbate global climate disruption," he said. "This is a hypothesis worth looking at more. I, too, am concerned about climate disruption and very much so."
Energy companies have been responding, trying to capture and sell the methane rather than burn it off.
Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, shares some of Siegel's concerns, but points out that other sources of energy also have costs. They think energy production, and fracking in particular, is greatly misunderstood.
Siegel said he "knows of no other industry so distorted by opponents."
Now studying in Pennsylvania, Engelder was in Michigan looking at the Antrim Shale in the 1980s. He said gas and oil extraction is getting safer all the time, but there is a risk in everything. He say all energy has costs and the debate ignores the issue of risk, which people accept in almost every area of their lives but are supposed to pretend doesn’t exist when it comes to fracking and energy.
"With the misinformation, the public has no way to access risk," Engelder said. "Risk can be measured in driving, and the public tolerates that risk … and yet they apparently tolerate zero risk in the gas industry? Meanwhile, (the public) is using natural gas to heat their homes and cook their hamburgers … that isn’t free."