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The cases for and against hydrofracking

The EPA recently released a report stating that while hydrofracking has not led to significant impacts on drinking water, contamination may occur with “potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water.” In this extract from Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know, Alex Prud’homme breaks down the cases for and against hydrofracking.

In the case for hydrofracking: What is the impact of shale oil and gas on the US economy?

In a word: revolutionary. As proponents point out, hydrofracking has helped to create new jobs, higher incomes, and tax windfalls for cash-strapped states.

For decades, the dialogue about oil and gas has been built on a paradigm of limited supply, declining production, and volatile pricing. These assumptions were based on the pioneering work of M. King Hubbert, a Shell geologist who in the 1950s forecast that American oil production would peak in 1971. Shale gas reserves have turned those assumptions on their head.

The United States produced less oil in 2012 than in 1971—Hubbert was correct—and prices remained high. Yet America produced more oil in 2012 than in any year since 1994, and natural gas production is nearing record levels. In 2000, shale gas represented merely 2 percent of the nation’s energy supply; by 2012, it was 37 percent.

The abundance of gas has set off ripples throughout the US economy, with numerous additional impacts. As power companies substitute gas for coal in their generators, for instance, consumers benefit from lower prices. This switch has led to another important boon: a significant reduction in CO2 emissions.

“One thing is clear,” writes Steven Mufson, an energy and financial news reporter at the The Washington Post. “Tumbling natural gas prices have changed every calculation and assumption about the energy business.”

In the case against hydrofracking: What are the biggest concerns in terms of water supplies?

Opponents have expressed three main concerns about water. First, they worry that hydraulic fracturing uses so much H2O—about 5 million gallons per well, on average—that it can deplete groundwater supplies faster than nature can recharge them, especially in dry regions like Texas or California. (“Recharge” signifies the amount of water an aquifer—an underground water supply—regains each year from precipitation and runoff.) Second, the injection of chemicals—some of them toxic—underground at extreme pressures raises fears of chemical spills on the surface and consequent contamination of water supplies below ground as those chemicals seep into the fractured rock. Third, the safe disposal of fluid and “produced water” (groundwater that is brought to the surface in the course of drilling) remains a challenge, and has occasionally caused minor earthquakes when injected into geologic fault zones.

Headline Image Credit: Operating oil and gas well. © cta88 via iStock.

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