While “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) certainly poses some major economic and industrial benefits for America (described by Seamus as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas), the practice still poses a number of questions as well as potential threats to both the environment and the health of humanity. The question that advocates of fracking would prefer persons to ask is whether or not this is a viable alternative to oil consumption — a fair question. Yet, reasonably concerned individuals should not be afraid to ask at what cost fracking will come to Americans — as well as others around the world should the practice become more popular in coming years. The cost-benefit ratio is complicated in the case of fracking by the lack of scientific studies performed that could address some of the more pressing questions regarding the practice — such as, what happens to the chemicals shot into the earth during the procedure that do not return to the surface? As McLendon points out, “no study has ever shown where the rest end up” (360). This paper will show why, because of the lack of data regarding the effects of fracking on the environment and on the health of humanity, fracking should not be supported or implemented to any extent — in spite of the economic benefits it may have for energy consumers.
As Banerjee shows, natural gas production has coincided with the contamination of drinking water in Texas. While researchers and politicians are at odds about whether the finding of methane in drinking water wells is related to fracking or if the methane is the result of naturally occurring deposits near the aquifers, the point that Banerjee makes is that there are too many unknowns for fracking to be considered safe practice at this point in time. Indeed, the idea that fracking can be promoted as a perfectly safe process so long as the proper precautions are taken is comparable to suggesting that a sophomore high school student is prepared to operate a nuclear reactor because he did an 8-page paper on Fukushima. The scientific studies simply have not been conducted to any rigorous standards or to any extent that conclusive remarks may be definitively made regarding the extent to which fracking is or is not safe.
These questions are not isolated to Texas, either. In Pennsylvania, a similar case has arisen in the town of Dimock, where “people’s water started turning brown and making them sick, one woman’s water well spontaneously combusted, and horses and pets mysteriously began to lose their hair” (Bateman). Indeed, all of Dimock’s described symptoms point to water well contamination — contamination that has coincided with the process of fracking — “injecting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals, many of them toxic, into the earth at high pressures to break up rock formations and release gas trapped inside” (Bateman). These mysterious coincidences may not be enough to alarm the most adamant proponents of natural gas energy in the country, but those who are open to alternative energy solutions (that do not require drilling for oil or gas or fracking for the latter) could easily ask why green energy solutions are not being pursued by energy companies with the same resolve, determination and full-throttle spirit clearly demonstrated by fracking proponents’ resolutions to secrete natural gas trapped in rock miles deep. For instance, the electric car is just one example of how technology could be utilized in the energy sector to help transform the way the industry approaches the demand for clean energy now being heard from consumers in greater and greater numbers. Evidence of this demand is everywhere — from stakeholders in Tesla (TSLA), one of the most sought after companies in the stock market to popular films like Gasland (2010), which give voice to the rising angst of the American consumer.
Josh Fox, director of Gasland (2010), points out that the 2005 Energy Bill signed into law by George Bush, cleared away numerous environmental restrictions allowing energy companies like Chesapeake to use the technology of fracking developed by Halliburton to engage in a large-scale fracking operation covering 34 states in the U.S. Fox shows that the legislation that had been in effect prior to 2005 (legislation that had come into being as a result of support from organizations like the EPA) was now — as a result of the Bush-era energy bill — no longer in force — and energy companies engaged in energy production were no longer restricted by regulations and guidelines designed to protect people and the environment as a whole. What this means is that the safety precautions that had been followed by energy companies for decades literally went out the window so that fracking could be pursued with greater ease. Surely it must be recognized as another suspicious coincidence (like water turning brown in areas where fracking is conducted) that major fracking operations would suddenly start booming across the U.S. the moment energy regulations are significantly lightened.
Such suspicions are ignored by fracking proponents, however — especially by those who engage in fallacious reasoning in order to diminish the real concerns of real
Americans. The arguments of Seamus McGraw, for instance, are gentle defenses of fracking. In his article, McGraw represents himself is getting to the truth of the problem by dissecting “the top 10 controversial claims” about the process — beginning with the idea that the U.S. is “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” as John Kerry once observed in 2010 (McGraw 350). However, what McGraw is really doing is setting up strawmen arguments in order to knock them down and make fracking appear less concerning than it actually is. For example, McGraw notes that the U.S. has nowhere near the energy fields that Saudi Arabia has (the natural gas reserves in the U.S. are substantial and could reshape the course of the energy industry in America, but to suggest that they are as big as Saudi Arabia’s reserves is not true). The point of drawing attention to Kerry’s unfounded remarks is to lure the reader into a false sense of security: McGraw shows that he is a “truth teller” — only to tackle more substantial controversies about fracking in a kid-glove manner. In other words, he sidesteps the real issues and — without directly admitting that fracking could potentially lead to a number of environmental catastrophes in the U.S. — he closes the door on issues by asserting that so far no conclusive evidence has been found that proves fracking is dangerous.
What McGraw does not show is that the reason no conclusive evidence has been found is that no serious studies have been conducted in which relevant data has been analyzed. (The case in point is the California Council on Science and Technology’s report — a pseudo-scientific study that will be discussed momentarily). McGraw’s aim is to rebut a number of controversial claims by admitting some truth but denying larger implications and diminishing any reader’s need to worry. For example, McGraw observes that the methane gas which is released during the fracking process is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming — but he attempts to spin this important point by stating that there is “a solution at hand to lower emissions” (352). All the while it is evident that energy companies are reluctant to implement such emission safeguards because of the financial burden that attends them. In short, McGraw himself cannot hide the fact that energy companies are concerned with turning profits more than they are with corrupting the earth and/or harming the environment and the health of humans.
Still, the energy companies are not alone in their reluctance to rack up costs; the EPA is right there alongside them. Just as energy producers would rather allow methane to poison the atmosphere than implement costly strategies to contain it, the EPA has avoided pursing litigation against energy companies. The EPA has decided to stand on the sidelines in Texas in spite of “explosion risk” level findings of methane in well water (Banerjee). While these levels, so the EPA contends, are directly related to fracking companies operating nearby, the problem is that the EPA is a government agency that is as susceptible to politics as any other federal agency. Since energy companies have powerful interest groups in Washington that interact with legislators and members of the judicial and executive branches, the EPA has shown a reluctance on its part to pursue legal recourse for fear of reprisal (Banerjee). Thus, there is reluctance on both sides of this issue — reluctance on the part of the energy companies to implement costly but potentially effective methane-controls — and reluctance on the part of the EPA to maintain costly and potentially politically dangerous suits against the energy industry. The fallout is that the American public and the American environment are left to suffer the consequences.
Meanwhile, the studies that are meant to examine whether there is a relation between fracking and water contamination are not being conducted appropriately — as has been shown with the California Council on Science and Technology, a purportedly “nonpartisan scientific research organization established by the state legislature to advise state officials” (Cart “Fracking Report . . . “). The report published by the council in 2014 essentially paved the way for the federal government to resume fracking operations that had been halted due to safety concerns — but what the report failed to note was the lack of data analyzed by the researchers who conducted the study. The egregious negligence of a study designed to examine a potentially dangerous relationship that fails to actually take into consideration the relevant data is bad enough — but it also indicates that researchers who are not finding evidence of contamination of well water are doing so because they simply are not provided the necessary data to analyze in the first place. As Cart reports, “data gaps” are typical of such studies — and are even admitted: “For example, the report [of the California Council] found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in California, but the scientist directing the research, Jane Long, said researchers also had no data on the quality of water near fracking sites” (Cart “Fracking Report . . . “). Thus, it is evident and stands to reason that if the scientists tasked by the government with determining the environmental impact of fracking on local water supplies do not obtain samples of water from the said local water supplies, it is highly unlikely that the scientists will be able to indicate evidence of contamination. Such “research” hardly merits the name and enjoys obvious political perks.
In conclusion, fracking is not a process that should be allowed in the U.S. until the questions and concerns of the American public have been addressed. What do we know about the destabilizing effect of fracking on the earth? This question has not been answered. What do we know about the chemicals used in fracking? Where do they go? These questions have not been answered. What of the pollution — the methane that escapes during fracking — will this be addressed? This question has not been answered. It is absurd to try to reassure those who are fearful or who have had methane in their water by arguing that there is no evidence linking fracking to contamination. As the scientists researching the case in California showed, of course there is no evidence when one is not given the data to study. For these reasons, it is unconscionable to advocate for fracking when the effects of fracking and the dangers that it could pose to the environment and to human beings have not been adequately assessed.
Banerjee, Neela. “Natural Gas Production Contaminated Drinking Water in Texas, Study
Finds. Los Angeles Times, 2014. Web. http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-gas-wells-drinking-water-contamination-20140915-story.html
Bateman, Christopher. “A Colossal Fracking Mess.” Vanity Fair, 2010. Web.
Cart, Julie. “Fracking Report Clears Way for California Oil, Gas Leasing to Resume.”
Los Angeles Times, 2014. Web. http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-fracking-report-20140829-story.html
Cart, Julie. “State Issues Toughest-in-the-Nation Fracking Rules.” Los Angeles Times,
2015. Web. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-state-issues-fracking-rules-20150701-story.html
Fox, Josh, Dir. Gasland. YouTube, 2010. Web.
McGraw, Seamus. Taking Sides: Issue 14, “Is Natural Gas Hydraulic Fracturing Safe?”
(PDF on Blackboard)
McLendon, Russell. Taking Sides: Issue 14, “Is Natural Gas Hydraulic Fracturing Safe?”
(PDF on Blackboard)
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