A Midterm Lay of the Land: Fracking

Fracking has been hailed as a potential solution to America’s dependence on energy imports by freeing up vast domestic reserves of oil and gas. But as with any non-renewable energy, obtaining and using fossil fuels from fracking imposes major costs, the full extent of which aren’t yet clear.

Fracking has been hailed as a potential solution to America’s dependence on energy imports by freeing up vast domestic reserves of oil and gas. But as with any non-renewable energy, obtaining and using fossil fuels from fracking imposes major costs, the full extent of which aren’t yet clear.

The process of drilling and operating a fracked well damages public health and our environment. Problems include:

  • Drinking water contamination. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection acknowledges that at least 234 wells have been polluted by fracking.
  • Air pollution. Workers and residents near drilling sites are exposed to air pollutants, including benzene and formaldehyde, which cause cancer. Emissions from fracking contribute to regional air pollution problems.
  • Respiratory and skin problems, hospitalizations, newborn health problems and traffic accidents, all of which have increased in regions where fracking is common.
  • Disruption of habitats and open space. At least 360,000 acres of land have been cleared for well sites, roads and pipelines.
  • Increased global warming pollution. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, traps up to 105 times more heat in the atmosphere over 20 years than does the same amount of carbon dioxide. Multiple recent studies (here, here and here) indicate fracking releases so much methane that natural gas may have climate impacts comparable to coal.

Making matters worse, we don’t know the full extent of the problems caused by fracking. Oil and gas companies engaged in fracking are exempt from many standards intended to protect the environment and public health. For example, operators do not have to track what they do with radioactive waste from fracking sites. Fracking operations are also exempt from many federal rules governing underground injection of contaminated wastewater and therefore recordkeeping is incomplete about what has been injected where. Even identifying all fracked wells and what chemicals they’ve used is impossible because most states do not maintain a public database of such wells.

There is also reason to believe that fracked wells may provide only a short-term boost in U.S. oil and gas production. Experience with existing fracked wells shows that they may not be as productive as government forecasts suggest. Though the federal Energy Information Administration projects that the nation will produce 50 percent more gas from fracked wells in 2040 than in 2013, output from some key shale fields is already in decline.

In short, we know that fracking creates extensive public health and environmental impacts and that this damage will probably yield less oil and gas than drilling companies have promised. Increasing the number of fracked wells to boost production would impose even greater environmental and public health consequences than we already have experienced.

The problem with boosting production is that no amount of new regulation or increased enforcement can make fracking safe. Some percentage of well casings will fail, jeopardizing water quality. (Despite more than 100 years of experience, the oil and gas industry still builds wells that fail.) Only constant perfection can control methane emissions that add to global warming: gas escapes so easily from wells and pipelines that even if more than 99 percent of components operate perfectly, emissions still can be high because of the failure of a handful of devices.

A better choice would be to recognize that fracking imposes too many costs and decide that the practice should be banned. More communities and leaders came to this realization—and were able to overcome oil and gas industry opposition—in 2014 than in any previous year.

  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo established a permanent moratorium on fracking in the state, parts of which lie over the Marcellus Shale. Cuomo cited concerns about the public health impacts of fracking as a prime reason for his December decision.
  • In November, voters in Denton, Texas, approved a ballot measure banning fracking within city limits. Existing wells can continue to operate, but no additional fracking can occur at those or new wells. The ban has been challenged in court by both the state of Texas and oil and gas interests.
  • Akron, Ohio, residents voted to ban fracking and the disposal of fracking wastes within city limits.

Oil and gas industry opposition killed several other potential bans or limits on fracking. A proposed ban in Santa Barbara, California, failed after fracking interests spent $5.7 million opposing it. In Colorado, the oil and gas industry spent $9 million in support of two pro-fracking ballot initiatives intended to counter two anti-fracking measures. To avoid a showdown during the November election, Governor Hickenlooper pushed both sides to withdraw their initiatives and thereby voters didn’t have the opportunity to weigh in on limiting fracking.

While additional regulation and restrictions on fracking appear likely in some states where fracking is already widespread, industry influence means those limits likely will be modest. In Pennsylvania, where fracking is allowed in state parks and other public land, newly elected Governor Tom Wolf has said that he opposes allowing additional wells in those places. He has also pledged to keep the Delaware River Basin off limits to fracking. In Colorado, an oil and gas task force convened by the governor is supposed to submit recommendations for possible legislative changes to fracking rules by the end of February. The impact of the task force may be limited by the tense politics that led to its formation and by the fact that its recommendations will be released just two months before the end of the legislative session.

Declining oil prices may offer an opportunity for better controls on fracking, by slowing development of new wells and creating breathing room for communities and decision-makers to take stock of the costs and benefits of the shale boom. By taking in the whole picture, it is possible that more communities will decide that fracking just isn’t worth the costs.


Elizabeth Ridlington

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her son.

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