Machine Design
Fracking: It’s Better Than the Alternatives

Fracking: It’s Better Than the Alternatives

Hydraulic fracturing, a method of getting more natural gas out of shale formations, has been a major boon for the U. S. and the rest of the world. It lets the U. S. get 40% of its gas from shale, a once little-regarded resource. It has pushed the price of natural gas from $13/ft3 in 2008 to under $4/ft3 today. This translates into annual savings of $1,000 in heating and electricity costs per household, with most of these savings going to those who aren’t rich. And fracking means fewer U. S. dollars go overseas.

Like any industrial process — including steel making, egg farming, and solar power and wind turbines — fracking can lead to problems if done improperly or negligently. But no responsible person advocates letting companies act negligently or illegally. In fact, gas companies want to make fracking safe for both humans and the environment. These firms are also working with local, state, and federal governments to establish meaningful guidelines and legislation. At the same time, local governments want the taxes, landowners want the royalties, consumers want the lower energy prices, and everyone wants a clean planet.

In fact, the EPA has been looking at fracking and has found few problems. One issue it investigated was methane supposedly leaking into water supplies due to fracking. An EPA study found that so-called contaminated wells “contained levels of methane typical in the area and below levels that the federal government considers a threat to health.” Then in 2011, the head of the EPA testified to Congress that she was “not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself affected water… In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.”

So deciding between fracking or the environment looks like a false choice. We can have both. Fracking has already produced enough natural gas to send U. S. coal-generated electricity from 48 to 37% of U. S. needs in only four years. It has also convinced utilities not to build about 150 new coal-fired plants. Many are planning natural-gas burning plants instead. These new plants will release none of the soot, mercury, arsenic, or lead that come from coal-burning generators and half the CO2. Meanwhile natural gas from fracking has been partly responsible for the U. S. cutting its CO2 emissions by 800 million tons since 2007, a better cleanup act than all those countries that signed onto the Kyoto Protocols.

Coal isn’t the only energy soured that has problems. As John Hanger, a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection, said in a recent article for The Guardian:

“Virtually all of our energy choices have big safety and environmental risks or significant weaknesses. There is no perfect or excellent energy source that has no environmental impact, is low cost, and operates continuously. Indeed, especially in terms of the environment, our energy choices today are mostly ugly.”

Nuclear energy, for example, leaves us with hazardous wastes which we can’t figure out how to dispose of. And most U. S. residents have a fear, perhaps irrational, of radioactivity. (I wonder how many citizens know they get dosed with relatively high levels of radiation every time they fly.)

Oil can be dangerous to transport, difficult to clean up after spills, and burning it releases lots of CO2, along with other toxic substances and soot.

Hydroelectric dams disrupt river life and tick off the Sierra Club. Corn-based ethanol distorts the corn markets, leaving some people hungry, and has been known to harm engines and fuel systems. Wind and solar power will take a long time to scale up to where they provide more than 5% of our power. Plus, neither can generate a single watt if it’s too windy or not windy enough at night. And if we did build enough solar panels and wind turbines, who’s to say all those non-reflective surfaces and impediments to the wind won’t affect weather patterns and climate?

Fracking and the burning of natural gas might not be perfect, but they sure seem to be better than the alternatives. Let’s work to make it safer and more affordable with prudent and fairly enforced safety and environmental regulations.

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