Hydraulic Fracturing: a Practice Hidden Beneath Murky Waters
Hydraulic Fracturing: a Practice Hidden Beneath Murky Waters

The Japanese artist, and widow of the late John Lennon, among other celebrities, started a campaign in an attempt to sway public opinion against fracking (Artists against fracking). In spite of the lack of hydraulic fracturing data, government policy was crafted allowing the practice in certain parts of the United States and around the world.

Proponents of fracking claim that it is a viable alternative to dirty coal and is a boon to the economy. Environmentalists, who are among the method’s top critics, claim it is an unsafe practice that contaminates air and ground water. This news analysis presents the global implications of hydraulic fracturing and highlights the role of incomplete data on decision-making.

Global Operations

In the United States, fracking is relatively young, but it is an extremely robust industry. 2005 marked the expansion of hydraulic fracturing under the Bush administration. The drilling process was deemed safe based on a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, exempting fracking from the Clean Drinking Water Act (Drajem  and Klimasinska, 2012).

Some named it the “Halliburton loophole” since the vice president during the Bush administration, Dick Cheney, used his clout as the former CEO of Halliburton, to help excuse the process from the Act (Safety first, fracking second , 2011). Benjamin Grumbles, an assistant administrator of the EPA who oversaw the 2004 report on hydraulic fracturing, claimed that the findings of the study were simply meant to be a benchmark. The EPA never intended the early report to be used for long-term policies (Lustgarten, 2011).

Internationally, however, there has been a mixed reception toward fracking. France placed a moratorium on the practice and the European countries that allow it have seen little or no success in extracting the natural resource. In Poland, Exxon recently withdrew their operations in charge of exploring the fracking’s viability. The high cost of operation was a large factor in the firm’s operations exiting the country (Carroll, 2012).

High costs are also an issue for the resource itself. In most European countries, natural gas contracts determine the price of natural gas. These contracts use the price of crude oil as a benchmark. Usually taking three months to change, the natural gas contracts are slow to adjust, whereas in the United States prices adjust quickly as they are directly related to supply and demand. European natural gas prices also reflect distribution-related issues. Most natural gas supplied to Europe comes from Russian gas pipelines. The Russians charge a lot of money for this distribution system, particularly to Western Europe. Thus, Europe largely depends on coal instead on natural gas, so the “demand” is weak Davoust, 2008).

Water scarcity has also been a deterrent for the opening of hydraulic fracturing operations in many countries, such as China and South Africa, which have some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world. The gas extraction process requires millions of gallons of water to be pumped into bedrock (Blackman, 2012). To reduce the use of fresh water, China is trying to find a way to recycle water used in the process.

Issues of water security for the world’s most populous country are not a new phenomenon. China’s rapid economic development and population growth rapidly strained the country’s water resources. Pollution also contributes to a shrinking drinking water supply. Without the widespread presence of fracking, China already polluted 57 percent of groundwater in 660 cities. Hydraulic fracturing will only cause this percentage to increase, as the practice is notorious for polluting local air and groundwater (Lee, 2012).

Other countries have been quicker in developing fracking industries. Canada may arguably have one of the most pervasive drilling operations in the world. The Northwestern Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia have seen the most amount of hydraulic fracturing activity. Slackened regulations and financial incentives by the government caused copious amounts of investment by energy extraction companies like Encana.

The growth of the industry raised considerable civic concern. Canadians alarmed with their water sources near drilling sites starting to fizz and become contaminated with black particles, have appealed to government officials with limited success. There is no protocol in place to respond to fracking-related water pollution complaints and government reports have dismissed such claims. Even more troubling is the likelihood of government-industry collusion. In 2011, a memo containing plans between the Canadian government and petroleum producers to sway public opinion in favor of fracking (Kusnetz, 2011).

Murky Data and Clouded Decisions

A lack of information and shifty industry behavior has become an all too familiar occurrence where fracking is present. The grounds that contain the operations are difficult to access and the condition of the environment is rarely taken into account prior to site openings. Ingredients in the fracking mixture are protected from disclosure since it’s a ‘trade secret.’ Moreover, when lawsuits are filed for damage caused by the process, settlements often involve nondisclosure agreements to keep incidents from being publicly known.

Academic literature on the effects of the natural gas extraction process is limited as well. In a recent study by Bamberger and Oswald (2012), a link was found between fracking sites and local environmental damage. The research looked at the areas surrounding drilling zones and its effect on livestock. Animals showed symptoms including reduced birth rates, increased rates of birth defects, cancer and death. The study proves to be quite suggestive of the effects of hydraulic fracturing pollution since livestock is exposed to the environment for longer periods than their human owners.

“The bubbling gun”

Perhaps the most traumatic evidence of the possible effects of fracking on life can be seen in the 2010 documentary Gasland. One of the cases that the film looked at involved a family that lost its ability to drink their tap water soon after a drilling site opened nearby. Murky, bubbling tap water began appearing, raising serious concerns. The household filed a lawsuit against the responsible firm and settled the dispute with an award to cover the cost of a water filtration system. Even after the filtration system had been installed, one of the family members became extremely ill. It was later discovered that one of the fracking chemicals corroded the filter, allowing contaminated water to be supplied to the household (Fox).

This anecdote is not only troubling in the sense that the affected family was denied the right to something as vital as water, but also because they were unable to protect themselves from harm. The inability to completely understand what fracking does to the environment and people has profound implications. Without this information, those who are exposed cannot protect themselves. Effective policy cannot be constructed to create necessary regulations that will prevent these tragedies from occurring.

While the process does certainly offer massive financial promise in a time when the economy could be better, the costs may outweigh the benefits. Investing money into a practice that may cause more damage than economic growth down the road is an ineffective means of bolstering the economy. The decision to frack stands at an imperative juncture where past episodes should encourage insight into the process and improvement of the technology.

Works Cited

Artists against fracking. (2012). Retrieved from http://artistsagainstfracking.com/.

Bamberger, M. & Oswald, R. (2012). Impacts of gas drilling on human and animal health. New Solutions: A journal of environmental and occupational health policy, 22 (1), pp. 67-70.

Blackman, J. (2012, Sept. 26). Fracking goes global. PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/09/fracking-goes-global.html

Carroll, J. (2012, Mar. 8). Fracking failing to crack China, Europe shale, Exxon says.  Bloomberg. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-08/exxon-estimates-oil-and-gas-production-will-decline-3-in-2012.html

Davoust, R. (2008). Gas price formation, structure and dynamics. IFRI, pp. 11-17. Retrieved from www.ifri.org/downloads/notedavoust.pdf

Drajem, M. and Klimasinska, K. (2012, Feb. 1). EPA shrinking ‘Halliburton loophole’ threatens Obama gas pledge. Bloomberg. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-01/epa-shrinking-halliburton-loophole-threatens-obama-gas-pledge.html

Fox, J (Director). Gasland [Documentary]. New York: HBO.

Kusnetz, N. (2011, Dec. 28). Oh, Canada’s become a home for record fracking. Propublica. Retrieved from http://www.propublica.org/article/oh-canadas-become-a-home-for-record-fracking

Lee, J. (2012, Nov. 27). China planning ‘huge fracking industry.’ The Guardian.Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/nov/27/china-planning-huge-fracking-industry

Lustgarten, A. (2011, Mar. 9). Former Bush EPA official say fracking exemption went too far; Congress should revisit. Propublica. Retrieved from http://www.propublica.org/article/former-bush-epa-official-says-fracking-exemption-went-too-far

Safety first, fracking second. (2011, Oct 19). Scientific American. Retrieved from ttp://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=safety-first-fracking-second

Photos:
*http://www.flickr.com/photos/greensefa/8204846031/sizes/z/in/photostream/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/darthpedrius/6144362998/sizes/z/in/photostream/

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