Energy is kind of a “perennial” issue in American politics, economics and media. It has been that ways for decades. Finally there may be some progress in dealing with this issue. New technology is credited by experts as the reason the United States is within a few years of again becoming the biggest oil producer in the world, and perhaps two decades away from full energy independence.
Hydraulic fracturing, fracking, is the “lead” technology in this technological revolution. Fracking is an economically more feasible way of drilling for oil or gas in harder to reach geological formation. The petroleum may be less permeable, or conventional drilling damaged the formations. Within the past decade or so, combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling has opened up shale deposits across the country. It has large-scale natural gas drilling to new regions. Fracking has been called game changer.
As might be expected, fracking has become very controversial. Some critics are concerned with the lax regulation of fracking. California and New York, with major methane supplies, are looking into legislative limits. We can expect the fracking debate will heat up as the Middle East, and other oil producing trouble spots, heat up.
Many of the problems with fracking come with any large scale energy extraction operations. One reads of many more disasters with coal mining than with fracking. Offshore oil spills can be epic in their scope. Fracking may require more care, and more regulation. In United States political climate recently, however, a strong case would have to be made to put more regulations on fracking or, for that matter, on anything else.
Methane gas leaks, to cite the major reported problem with fracking, can happen, but not usually to a great enough extent to pose a significant risk. Methane already leaks into the air from other sources. Chemical laden water has polluted land and water in fracking areas. Natural gas recovery has been linked to earthquakes, but more from waste water recovery than the fracking itself – the solution to one problem helping creating another problem. But we are talking “technical” earthquakes, measurable only with new and highly sensitive equipment.
Methane is explosive, and has no natural smell. The familiar “smell” of methane is actually an additive injected for safety reasons – to detect leaks. The bottom line is that in large enough amounts Methane can be dangerous. There is evidence that methane can leak into groundwater and into the air from fracking. But there is debate over how much methane leaks from fracking projects, and the precise sources of the leaks.
The unfortunate tendency in much of the debate over fracking has been to balance the pros and the cons, and see who make the most convincing case. This is logical, but not the best way to go. It is also not sufficient in considering a way to achieve all the advantage of energy independence. We should look at the problems with fracking, and see how the problems can be solved. The energy security potential of fracking, balanced with the environmental risks, make it important that it not be a yes-no question, but rather than we try to find a solution.