Sequestration, gridlock and international relations seem to dominate the public discourse, but the seemingly esoteric issue of hydraulic fracturing – fracking – has nevertheless established its place on the political stage. Just last month, our own California announced new policy proposals to regulate fracking; yet despite bucking the pro-industry trend, the state has failed to please concerned environmentalists.
A brief history of fracking
Hydraulic fracturing has been used for at least 60 years in the United States, and is now touted as a way to achieve energy independence as well as a sustainable future. With the advent of better technologies, and a growing need for cheap, clean and affordable energy fracking has become a popular choice for many gas and oil companies. Yet the process of fracking, which involves injecting the earth with sand, water and chemicals, leaves environmentalists and certain scientists feeling uneasy. And it’s that last aspect – mainlining chemicals into the ground – that has many worried.
Under the proposed regulations in California, companies would be required to disclose the chemicals they are injecting into the ground. On its face, the proposed regulations strike a blow for transparency. But of course, the devil’s in the details.
These disclosures would be stored in a privately owned database, called FracFocus, that many claim is linked to the oil and gas industry. Moreover, companies can claim “trade secrets” exemptions that would allow them to keep the chemicals that they use out of public knowledge.
Fracking: Better than carbon dioxide?
Part of natural gas’ popularity is that it’s seen as less harmful as coal, as well as less expensive. However a 2011 study by Cornell University found that natural gas could in fact be worse for the environment. They warn that methane released might be more harmful than our old friend CO2, as methane’s deleterious effect on the atmosphere is 105 times that of carbon dioxide. Disturbingly, the study estimates that as much as 8% of the methane in shale reserves leaks into the air during the lifetime of a fracking well.
In another study by the Pacific Institute in 2012 of government, academic and private groups, many named water issues as a main concern. Chemicals leaked during the fracking process into the surrounding water supply can jeapordize the quality of drinking water. And that’s not to mention the sheer quantity of water needed to extract this energy – an increasingly touchy subject as Californians spar with each other over water rights.
The economic impact of a boom town
The boom and bust characteristic of an energy town will – hopefully – largely spare California, which has a diverse and resilient economy. Yet the economic consequences of fracking cannot be ignored. You hear it over and over: a natural resource draws men but not families, money but not wealth, a brief glimpse of prosperity but no lasting or transferrable skills. There are indirect effects as well – a real estate developer eagerly invests in an “undervalued” asset, regular people rack up crippling mortgage debt to own a home in the place where they live, only to be left stranded when the bubble bursts.
South Dakota is a prime example of the societal changes wrought by unexpected and impermanent natural wealth. Salaries rise, but so too do prices, until housing is out of reach even for those making six-figure salaries. A rapid influx of newcomers tears away at the social fabric of a community, leaving a town in transit that lacks the will to tame a frontier. The rapid rise of a fracking economy raises the specter of an equally swift fall.
The case for comprehensive analysis
California has taken a bold step in regulating hydraulic fracturing; true to form, they voice dissent before the sentiment becomes popular. Yet the proposal to disclose chemicals addresses only one aspect of the dangers of fracking, and even then its efficacy is debatable.
With an infinitely informed and infinitely dedicated population, simple knowledge would be enough. But the point of representative democracy is that we don’t have time to vote on every policy ourselves; we have kids, and loans, and jobs, and lives, and we delegate duly elected representatives to vote in our stead. Informing the populace does little if the populace cannot fully understand what we’re being told.
Moreover, as we’ve seen, lingering chemicals are but one aspect of the consequences of hydraulic fracturing. As yet unstudied are the effects of water contamination, earthquakes and the weakening of the social fabric. California’s made a good start; we’re proud of our state. Yet it’s hardly enough to fully understand and evaluate fracking.
(Anisha Sekar - EarthAction Contributing Writer) This article comes to you from the NerdWallet Credit Team, which turns a quantitative eye to political news and current events.