Unlocking Energy: The Costs and Benefits of Fracking

Oil Fracking Explained

Recent innovations in fracking have enabled oil and gas producers to unlock vast new supplies of energy trapped in tight rock formations. This increase in domestic production has reduced energy prices, cut carbon dioxide emissions and helped the economy by reducing dependence on volatile foreign sources.

Nevertheless, fracking has been linked to negative local impacts. A rational discussion requires inspection of both costs and benefits.

What is fracking?

Fracking is the process of drilling into the earth, then using a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to break up rock formations that contain oil and natural gas. The sand in the fracking fluid holds open the cracks, while the chemicals do other jobs, such as kill bacteria.

Once the cracks are opened, gas and oil can flow through pipes to a wellhead at the surface. This method has made it possible to tap previously inaccessible natural gas reserves.

But the rush to fracking has also left important environmental safeguards on the back burner. For example, the federal government does not require companies to disclose what is in their fracking fluids, and millions of gallons of this toxic mix are pumped into the ground at each drilling site every year.

Many of these wells are located in areas with aquifers that are already under stress from overuse. And the long, horizontal wells used in fracking require even more water than traditional vertical wells.

How does it work?

Fracking relies on small explosions and a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals injected at high pressure to break up shale rock formations that hold oil and natural gas. The technology is revolutionizing petroleum and natural gas production. Without rigorous safeguards, however, fracking could poison groundwater and pollute surface waters, industrialize wild landscapes, and degrade wildlife habitat.

Giant new wells, requiring staggering volumes of water to fracture bedrock, are threatening America’s fragile aquifers. In Texas alone, fracking has consumed 1.5 trillion gallons—as much as the state consumes in a year.

The fracking process requires millions of gallons of freshwater each time. In arid regions where freshwater is scarce, the demand for water for fracking can strain local supplies and threaten communities that depend on them for drinking, farming, and other uses. The water used for fracking can’t be returned to the freshwater supply, so it is typically disposed of deep underground, away from freshwater supplies and ecosystems.

What are the risks?

Fracking can result in air pollution, contaminating water and endangering communities. Accidental spills can occur (in 2015 a North Dakota pipeline failure caused millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater to flow into a creek) and disposal of the toxic chemicals containing radioactive compounds poses another risk. Air pollutants can cause a variety of health problems, including childhood leukemia, cardiac problems, asthma symptoms and headaches.

Studies have linked fracking to groundwater contamination, contaminated water wells and the occurrence of small earthquakes. Methane gas, a byproduct of drilling, can be released into the environment and enter drinking-water wells, as evidenced by the 2010 film Gasland, which caused a sensation with footage of kitchen faucets spewing flames.

Pro-fracking advocates argue that the benefits outweigh any negative impacts from a boom in oil and gas production. To make an objective assessment, it’s necessary to look at costs and benefits side-by-side. A recent study attempts to do just that. It finds that the direct economic benefits to local communities are large.

What are the benefits?

Many of the debates surrounding fracking focus on the negative impacts it could have on communities near drilling sites. However, a balanced assessment of fracking should include discussion of its potential benefits as well.

One of the main benefits of fracking is that it has made it possible to access oil and gas deposits that were previously difficult to extract. This has led to a boom in oil and gas production.

Another benefit of fracking is that it has helped to keep gas prices low. This is because fracking allows the industry to produce so much gas so quickly.

Finally, fracking can also help to reduce carbon emissions. This is because it uses a lot of natural gas, which is a more environmentally friendly fuel than coal. In addition, fracking can also be used to capture methane gas, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. This is because methane traps 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

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