Two possible arguments for hydrofracking

Here in New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo is considering regulations for hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas from deep strata of shale.  Like many people, I think hydrofracking is a bad idea [1].  Here is what it would take to change my mind.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Opponents of hydrofracking are worried about the environmental impact, especially on the ground water and our water supply.  Supporters say that, with proper regulation, environmental effects would be minimal.

Hydrofracking is a large and widespread global industry.   My challenge to supporters would be to point out the area of the world where the hydrofracking industry uses its best practices.   If the environmental impact there is acceptable, then it would be acceptable in New York state under the same conditions. [2]

The other situation in which I would change my mind is that if there was a big shortage of natural gas, and hydrofracking was the only way to get the gas.  I heat my house with gas, and I don’t want to be without gas in an upstate New York winter.  But that situation is the opposite of the situation today.

Thanks to hydrofracking, the world’s supply of natural gas is increasing and the price of natural gas is falling.   Purely from the standpoint of economic gain [3], New York state would be wise to sit on its supply of natural gas until the world supply is diminishing (relative to demand) and the price is rising.  The underground natural gas isn’t going to go way.  It is like money in the bank.  We should save it for a rainy day, when we can impose a hefty severance tax (as Alaska does for oil) without diminishing the demand.

[1] Hydraulic fracturing involves digging a vertical shaft, then a horizontal shaft into gas-bearing shale.  An explosion is set off to fracture the shale.  Then water mixed with detergent is pumped into the fracture to force out the gas.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

One concern is that the detergent chemicals could enter the ground water supply through inadequate sealing of the shaft as the gas is forced upward.  Proponents say there would be too many geologic strata between the explosion and the water table to allow contamination of ground water by means of the explosion.  But hydrofracking has been associated with minor earthquakes, so maybe that isn’t always true.

Another concern is leakage of the natural gas itself.  Natural gas is methane, which is a greenhouse gas.  Methane allegedly has contaminated underground water as a result of hydrofracking, although methane contamination also is a natural phenomenon.  Hydrofracking uses up huge amounts of fresh water, which is another precious resource.

The offset is that the world needs energy, and natural gas is a clean-burning fuel that does not contribute to global climate change (except when released unburned into the atmosphere).

Click on No Fracking Way and  FRACKorporation for more about the case and campaign against hydrofracking.

Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

[2]  No matter how good the best practices, the state of New York should insist that the drilling companies disclose what chemicals they are putting into the ground.  Currently this information is withheld—everywhere, so far as I now—on the ground that this is a trade secret.   Even if the motive really is to protect trade secrets from competitors, rather than to keep negative information from the public, the people who are potentially affected by these chemicals have a right to know what they are.

[3]  Drilling companies have an incentive to get the natural gas out of the ground as quickly as possible, in order to cash in the expenses of their leases, and in order to take the natural gas before their competitors do.  This is perfectly understandable, but not a consideration that should drive public policy.


3 Responses to “Two possible arguments for hydrofracking”

  1. Michael Scott Says:

    I’m with you. If we allow fracking in NYS, we need to regulate it _very_ thoroughly, and tax it at a level that supports the regulation. My argument with friends who say “no fracking, ever” is that the transition to renewable energy sources will not be instantaneous, and — in my opinion — it makes a great deal of sense to replace coal plants with natural gas in the interim. This will likely require a significant _short term_ increase in the amount of natural gas we use. Fracking, well regulated, is much more attractive to me than tar sands oil or mountain-top-removal coal.


    • philebersole Says:

      I think I have failed to make my position clear. Let me clarify.

      I am opposed to hydrofracking in New York state at the present time, but there are two possible arguments that could change my mind.

      If someone could show a showcase of best hydrofracking practice where damage was kept to an acceptable minimum, and these practices were adopted in New York state, I would not oppose hydrofracking. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has shown an example of good hydrofracking, so I am still opposed.

      If someone could show the nation was in an energy emergency that could be alleviated only by natural gas, I would not oppose hydrofracking. However, no such emergency exists. At present the world has an abundant supply of natural gas.

      The prudent thing for us New Yorkers to do, in my opinion, is to refrain from throwing our reserves of natural gas on the bonfire, but instead to hold it back until it is more needed and more valuable. To me, this makes sense both economically and in terms of managing the transition to more sustainable fuels.

      The alternative to hydrofracking in New York state is neither mountaintop coal removal or tar sands oil, but to use the abundant natural gas being produced elsewhere.


  2. rsgilbertDick Gilbert Says:

    Phil’s discussion of hyrdofracking is very balanced, as is MIchael’s response. However,several other issues bother me even if the regulation is good enough to prevent leakage etc. (1) is the disruption of the community – it sets neighbor against neighbor and completely changes the ecology of the region. The New York Times has had several articles on North Dakota. Money is pouring in, but people are driven from their homes by high rent; crime is increasing dramatically; health care facilities cannot keep up with demand; and several other unsettling features of too-fast industrial development; (2) there is a satellite map of the US at night. The bright spots, as you would expect, are around metropolitan areas, with one major exception: North Dakota. There, to get the more profitable oil deposits, companies are allow to burn off gas, releasing methane directly into the atmosphere; (3) when hydrofracking moves in, the landscape changes dramatically with new roads for trucks, heavy truck traffic which destroys roads, sculpting out the land for pipelines, etc. And I don’t know if the pollution from trucks is counted in environmental studies. Can you imagine truck traffic, drilling pads, new roads, etc. co-existing with our bucolic Finger Lakes landscape with its now beautiful vistas, vineyards and tourist attractions?

    Just a few thoughts.


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