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Getting the Fracts Straight


Published: January 20, 2016

All forms of energy production have their risks, but scientific research suggests that hydraulic fracturing’s risks of water use, water contamination, or induced seismic activity from improper fluid disposal are rare, overblown, or easily mitigated. Like other energy productions, we have to weigh the risks and rewards. Estimates suggest fracturing will create almost 4 million jobs and pump almost $500 billion in the U.S.’s economy by 2035.

Discussion Questions

  1. The most commonly mentioned benefits of hydraulic fracturing are the economic advantages. In addition to being a major job creator, the industry adds significant value to the U.S. economy and increases state and local tax revenue without the need of increasing tax rates. But two other major benefits are fighting global climate change and promoting domestic energy independence. Natural gas’s share of electricity generation grew from 11% in 1990 to about 26% in 2014, almost exclusively at the expense of coal. This has been crucial to helping the U.S. decrease its carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, since 2005, by substituting natural gas electricity generation for coal and petroleum, the U.S. has reduced carbon emissions by 1,254 million metric tons. Source. Moreover, while most of hydraulic fracturing is focused on shale gas basins, there is a substantial amount of shale oil, which can be tapped using hydraulic fracturing. This has helped led to a boom in domestic oil production, making the United States less reliant on OPEC or South American oil imports. Since 2008, the lowest point of U.S. oil production since the 1950s, crude oil production in the United States has increased 74%. As a result, the U.S.’s net energy imports as share of total U.S. energy demand is at its lowest point since the 1960’s. SourceKnowing these additional benefits, are you more or less favorable of hydraulic fracturing and why?
  2. Water use, water contamination, and induced seismic activity are three of the major risks often associated with hydraulic fracturing. As elaborated, however, hydraulic  fracturing’s water use, when put into perspective, is quite low. Most scientific studies have found limited to no water contamination by hydraulic fracturing. And the induced seismic activity is completely and easily avoidable. Beyond these, what are some other risks or concerns you may have with hydraulic fracturing? Think about some property-rights, market-mechanism inspired ways these additional risks could be mitigated. Source.
  3. Hydraulic fracturing is very similar to conventional oil and gas drilling, yet differs at certain key points. Explain those differences. Which do you consider the most and least problematic difference? And reflect on whether the process would be less controversial if those differences didn’t exist. Source.
  4. Modern hydraulic fracturing dates back to the mid-1990’s, when George P. Mitchell revolutionized the industry by developing the horizontal drilling and fracturing method. This increased the yield of production without needing to add additional well-heads, which helps to preserve the landscape and the environment surrounding well fields. But the advent of hydraulic fracturing dates back to the post-Civil War era when Col. Edward Roberts applied for and received a patent for his improvement in exploding torpedoes in artesian oil wells. This technique increased the production of oil by 1,200%, but also led to wells collapsing. Throughout the early to mid-1900’s, companies perfected Roberts’ initial technique, later using fluids and gels to crack the surrounding rock rather than explosives. But the process wasn’t widely used commercially until Mitchell’s advancement of horizontal drilling. Given this history of hydraulic fracturing and the fact that the environmental movement has been strongly anti-fossil fuels for a generation, why do you think the technique has become so controversial over the last decade-plus? Source.