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Eco-Justice Notes
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Fracking Ethics 101
distributed 8/17/12 - ©2012

There is a follow-up to this commentary, Fracking Ethics 319, that digs deeper into some of these questions.

Fracking -- is it a blessing or a curse? There are vocal and single-minded advocates on both sides. It seems to me that the reality is considerably more complicated.

The lack of simple answers, though, doesn't mean that there's a corresponding lack of important moral questions. Fracking hooks into a wide range of eco-justice perspectives and themes. Today's Notes will be Fracking Ethics 101, a quick survey across the territory.

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To start with the essential background, "fracking" is a shorthand term for hydraulic fracturing, a process that very recently has come into widespread use by the oil and gas industry. For better or worse, it really is an amazing technological development, especially when combined with horizontal drilling.

It used to be that a well was drilled pretty much straight down into a rock formation containing petroleum stuff, and pumps would pull the oil or gas from a small area close to the well. Now, wells are dropped thousands of feet into the ground, and then turned to run horizontally within the oil-bearing formation. Fracking then injects water, sand and chemicals into the well at incredibly high pressure, forcing open cracks in the rock that allow gas and oil to be extracted from what would otherwise be an unproductive hole.

Fracking's ability to tap formerly low-yielding fields has transformed US energy production, with huge drilling operations in areas like Colorado (my home state), Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. About 200,000 wells have been drilled across the US in the last decade, and the glut of natural gas has dropped prices to about 40% of what they were four years ago.

Here's the good news, the message stressed by proponents of fracking. The plummeting price of natural gas has kept utility rates low, a blessing to the poor and to many businesses. The drilling boom has created lots of jobs, and has been a financial boon to local communities, counties and states. The vast increases in petroleum production has made some inroads toward the goal of US "energy independence." (The question of whether such independence is an accurate or desirable goal is beyond the scope of this quick survey.)

An important point, which is not often raised by the advocates of fracking, is that cheap natural gas has had a very positive impact on US greenhouse gas emissions. Electric utilities have been making a rapid transition from coal to gas, and burning gas releases much less CO2 per megawatt generated. A report released this week says that US CO2 emissions have dropped to a 20 year low, mostly because of the shift from coal. Some environmental groups have encouraged the shift to natural gas -- as a "transition fuel" while renewable energy ramps up -- because of its more benign climate impacts.

The good news about fracking is reflected in reflected in big corporate investments and government policies supporting the surge in gas drilling. But there is a lot of bad news about this new technology, too.

The huge increase in natural gas production, and the corresponding slashing of gas prices, is blocking the plan for gas to be a transition fuel. The price of gas is so low that it is making the development of wind and solar energy uneconomical . It is leading to the construction of a huge infrastructure for producing, shipping and burning gas which will lock us into the long-term use of that fuel.

There are big problems with pollution at every stage in the fracking process. (Fracking has been exempted from many provisions of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.) NPR has an excellent set of graphics detailing air and water pollution, and the chemicals that are used in the fracking process.

Drilling a well is noisy, dusty, has bright lights shining all night, and causes air pollution from trucks -- lots and lots of big trucks -- and the drilling equipment. That's a serious concern to people nearby, and it can have devastating impacts on wildlife.

Some of the water-sand-chemical mix used to fracture rocks flows back out of the well, and that waste water -- now tainted with oil products and sometimes radioactive materials -- can pollute rivers and nearby water wells. There are regional differences about water. Here in the dry West, the backflow from wells is held in storage ponds and sometimes re-used. In the East, it is more likely to be discharged into rivers after minimal processing. The New York Times did a major report on the impact of fracking's water pollution on East coast drinking water supplies.)

As a well is completed and goes into production, there is a lot of air pollution as gasses are vented and flamed off. (Flaring off gas at that stage in drilling is less polluting that just releasing it, but it is still dirty and a waste.) The amount of gas leakage and pollution related to fracking have led some experts to conclude that, overall, natural gas may have a larger climate impact than coal.

Many studies have documented poor regional air quality in areas with lots of drilling -- rural areas in southwest Wyoming have had worse air conditions than bad air days in Los Angeles. The polluted air causes health issues ranging from asthma to cancer. Amazingly, there have been no clear studies on the type and levels of pollution found close by any single well site, and those wells may be located just a few hundred feet from homes.

The vast quantities of water used by fracking are a major concern, especially in the drought-stricken West. Every time a well is fracked, around a million gallons of water is used -- on tens of thousands of wells, many of which are fractured multiple times. Conflicts are brewing over water rights, as drilling companies buy up water that had been used for agriculture. After use, that polluted water is often disposed of by injecting it into other deep wells, removing it forever from the hydrological cycle -- it isn't available for downstream users and wildlife, and it doesn't recycle into rain and snow.

Issues of property rights and local control are brought to a head by fracking. Mineral rights are owned separately from the surface land -- called the "split estate" -- and those living over gas deposits have little control over when and how drilling takes place on their land. Federal and state regulations control drilling processes, and local communities have been prohibited from imposing more stringent rules on wells within their borders.

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This quick survey just touches on the broad range of complex and conflictual issues related to fracking. You've probably picked up from the style of my comments that I'm not a big fan of this sort of gas production. But I'm also aware that fracking isn't going to go away anytime soon.

As is so often the case with eco-justice issues, there are some people and institutions that are big winners. This is generating big money for some businesses and communities. Those who are hit with the costs are more diffuse, and their problems are harder to quantify and document -- whether from health impacts, lost water, or endangered wildlife.

There needs to be much more in-depth debate about this form of energy development, and much more stringent controls. Local communities need to have more voice about what happens inside their town. The horrendous pollution and gas leakage, causing health and climate impacts, need to be dramatically reduced. Far better systems are needed for cleaning and re-using fracking water. And a more comprehensive, long-term energy policy needs to encourage the transition to renewable energy.

The polar choice between blessing and curse is far too simplistic, because there are some aspects of each. The very large and very real dangers of fracking, though, must be addressed more quickly and clearly than we see in current policies.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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