What’s The Big Fracking Deal?

While finishing up an evening of dining and holiday shopping in downtown Pittsburgh, the commotion of gathering crowds and police lights outside the convention center captured my attention. Across the street from a conference of energy industry officials and staff, a small group was beating drums while protesting against the industrial development of the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania.

The developing shale oil industry has quickly become a hotbed of controversy as the process of shale extraction has been dramatically revolutionized with the development of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” This is where a highly pressurized mixture of water, sand, and additives are pumped into sedimentary rock to allow for the extraction of fossil fuels. Unsurprisingly, it is the additives that are at the heart of the controversy.  But just what are they and why are people so upset about them?

The fluid used for fracking is composed of 99.5% water and sand while the rest is a mixture of chemicals, some of which are contaminants, such as benzene and acid.  Many environmental organizations, like Greenpeace and Riverkeepers, have the misguided fear that the fracking process will result in contamination of groundwater, even though it has been proven that fracking itself shows no definitive link to contamination as drill lines are cemented to prevent contact between fracking fluids and water supplies. While detractors consider this industrial development to be an ecological nightmare, many believe the shale industry to be the much-needed boost to the economy that Americans have been craving.

The Marcellus Shale formation, which could potentially produce 5.5 billion barrels of oil, also has the promise of producing revenue and jobs. According to a report prepared by Pennsylvania State University, the shale industry could produce $13 billion of added value, provide nearly 175,000 jobs annually and present $12 billion of state and local tax revenue over the next decade in Pennsylvania alone. A much larger shale formation underneath Utah and Wyoming contains 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil, rivaling the reserves of Saudi Arabia.

“Some are even talking about an era of ‘energy independence’ for the Americas, based on the immense conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon resources located there,” said Khalil Al Falih, the chief executive of Aramco (a major Saudi oil company) while revealing his concerns on the growing competition from the shale industry.

The prospect of the United States becoming a chief exporter of shale oil is riveting considering the current state of the economy. With national unemployment sitting at 8.6%, the promise of job availability and manufacturing should be music to the ears of all, but unfortunately, not everyone is humming the same tune.

Greenpeace has emphatically claimed that the shale industry would contribute to an increase in greenhouse gases and global warming.

“It’s pathetic,” remarked Senator Orrin Hatch in a 2008 interview. “Environmentalists are very happy having us dependent on foreign oil. They’re unhappy with us developing our own. What they forget to say is that shipping fuel all the way from the Middle East has a big greenhouse gas footprint too.”

In November 2010, Pittsburgh passed a city ordinance drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to counter the statewide growth of the industry. With this passage effectively banning fracking within city limits, Pittsburgh became the first city to recognize the “legally binding rights of nature.”  Whatever those are.

The growth of the shale industry has ignited a hope for renewed American prosperity.  While the cries of contamination are ridiculous, there are some legitimate concerns.  In fact, the real danger of fracking is a lack of safety protocol. Current precautions must be maintained to prevent tanker trucks from spilling chemical compounds or wastewater, which can contain trace amounts of radiation stirred up by the extraction process. But these precautions are standard; it would be in poor judgment to completely neglect the clear monetary benefits of utilizing our natural resources in a time when people need jobs and the economy needs a boost.

Americans are perfectly capable of taking risks and finding solutions to the problems we encounter.  The real dangers of the shale industry should be addressed openly and in a constructive way that produces results rather than a moratorium. It would be much more prudent for our government to invest tax dollars in regulating and inspecting a private energy industry with real promise than to throw away $500 million on a pipe dream like Solyndra.

Stephan Yenca // Point Park University // @SYenca

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Comments

  1. Kelly Kafir says:

    Well, good Lord, you don’t want to have our own oil AND jobs here… then who could the liberals blame???

  2. Stephan, did you not read recently of the problems fracking caused in Wyoming? Or are you just overlooking any of the negative news regarding fracking because of your close ties to the industry in your home state? Like the hundreds if not thousands of reports of contaminated groundwater where fracking has occurred? I know, water tables are much less deep than most shale formations, and cementing the drill holes SHOULD keep the chemicals out. If this is so, why are there so many reports of bad water? I have read some of these, have you? Judging by the tone of your article, you have dismissed all arguments as “ridiculous.” If I did not know better, I’d swear you are working for the oil company. Received some financing, have you? :)
    Not only are there real water contamination problems that must be addressed, but what about our own energy exports to other countries? We are now a net exporter of gas, among other energy products, for the first time since the 70’s. Big oil is making record profits, partly because of this, while our own supplies remain high priced. Is this fair?
    I’m not saying I have answers to our current tremendous problems of unemployment and others. Less regulation would increase the likelihood of the US gaining more jobs instead of losing them. There are so many regulations on business and data requirements now that nurses are being laid off, for example, because more time is needed to keep up with data requirements than caring for the sick.

  3. Keith, as I sit in my one bedroom apartment longing to be able to afford cable, I sincerely wish I was receiving funding. If I am ever so fortunate I will send you a postcard from Panama or some other tropical paradise. In the meantime, for no extra charge, I will write you a haiku about fracking:

    Do not frack you say
    It makes the earth rot. But the
    EPA says “Not”

    http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressRoom.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=23EB85DD-802A-23AD-43F9-DA281B2CD287

  4. I guess my comment was removed. I don’t know the rules, but I will try again.
    Stephan, your cited report was from May 24, 2011. It might as well be a decade ago, for all the relevance it provides.
    It’s hard to believe you would write such an article and not be informed of the latest news regarding this subject. Surely you are aware that in this day and time, especially, things change dramatically from one day to the next. Your report is 7 MONTHS OLD.
    If our sum total of knowledge now doubles every two years, as it does, just imagine what must happen from one day to the next.
    Please read this December 9th reference:
    http://fuelfix.com/blog/2011/12/09/industry-what-happens-in-wyoming-doesnt-happen-in-texas/
    But here is the most telling article I found:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/dec/09/shale-gas-drilling-epa-fracking-water-contamination
    From this article:
    Shale gas drilling’s dirty secret is out
    The EPA’s findings about fracking’s contamination of ground water have sent a shockwave through a gas industry in denial
    Thursday’s (Dec. 8) stunning announcement from US EPA that implicates hydrofracturing (“fracking”) as the cause of groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming is news that has rocked the world. But as groundbreaking and innovative as the investigation has been, the news comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following fracking closely.
    Anyone who lives in a gas drilling area can tell you: fracking contaminates groundwater. Citizens have been shouting this at the top of their lungs in fracking areas since shortly after the process of hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, paving the way for the largest gas drilling boom in domestic history. The exemption, known as the “Halliburton Loophole”, allows fracking companies to inject toxic chemicals under the ground in huge quantities and not report it to the EPA. But with this much fracking going on, with thousands of wells being drilled and fracked in 34 states, and with thousands of reported cases of contamination, the gas industry just can’t keep their secrets buried; they keep bubbling up through the ground.

    If all this is a shock to you, Stephan, it should be. And, 138 comments after this story shed more light on the subject, as is so often the case with comments.
    Thank you for reading the above articles. Better late than never, huh?

  5. I didn’t mention earthquakes before, but over the weekend, there was another one in Ohio near a well:
    The link between “fracking” and earthquakes was thrown into stark relief over the weekend when a magnitude 4.0 quake struck Youngstown, Ohio – typically not a hot bed of noticeable seismic activity. The quake triggered shaking reportedly felt as as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto.

    The temblor struck Dec. 31 and was the latest and strongest of 11 minor-to-light quakes that have hit the region since March. The epicenters are clustered around a wastewater injection well for a hydraulic fracturing operation.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2012/0102/How-fracking-caused-an-Ohio-earthquake

    Thanks for reading.

  6. Showing that it isn’t worried about the upswell of angst over hydraulic fracking technology, the Chinese government, through state-controlled Sinopec, today struck a deal with Devon Energy to buy into five prospective new exploration areas in the U.S.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2012/01/03/china-set-to-frack-america-in-shale-deal-with-devon/


  7. “There are things we need to know about drilling and earthquakes,” Brown told Reuters on Tuesday.

    Brown said he supports new energy exploration that brings jobs to the state but has questions about how companies will handle fracking and wastewater disposal. “They have got to answer the question of what they are going to do with the waste just like nuclear power,” Brown said.
    http://news.yahoo.com/ohio-earthquake-not-natural-event-expert-says-002703764.html

    Don’t forget to read the comments after the story. :)

  8. The U.S. should study whether hydraulic fracturing used to free natural gas from wells is a hazard to people or food sources, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-04/health-effects-of-fracking-for-natural-gas-need-study-says-cdc-scientist.html

  9. Lets trust the EPA’s findings. Government is never wrong huh? Fracking is going on in ND and so far no earthquakes. Get a grip. When we are all in food lines because we have no jobs then maybe you will be happy.

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