Sep 25 2013 8:00 am

Fracking: Do we have to choose between the world economy and environment?

With researchers and environmentalists up in arms about the risks of fracking, will the benefits of this alternative energy source quiet their concerns?

Fracking was invented in 1947

Many people would argue that it is an economic dream come true; for others an environmental nightmare.

Hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly known as fracking, has become a topic of heated discussion over the last decade. This process has made it possible to extract natural gas from shale deposits underground.

The effects on the economy and the environment have been debated and argued about in recent years. Many environmentalists and scientists agree that the effects that fracking have on the environment and our health may have severe repercussions in years to come, while economically it has increased the number of jobs, outputs of minerals and even made available some that were previously inaccessible.

The origins of fracking

Fracking was invented in 1947, and is the process of pumping large amounts of water, sand and chemical mixtures into boreholes to create minute fractures along which fluids such as natural gas, petroleum, uranium rich solutions and brine may travel in order to be harvested. The process has achieved massive success and has been greatly refined.

Fracking

After hydraulically injecting the high-pressure solutions into the holes, the fractures are held apart with mixtures of proppants, sand or aluminum oxide, so that the minerals may be successfully extracted. In 2010, it was estimated that around 60% of all new oil and gas wells were being hydraulically fractured and that this percentage is growing yearly.

Massive quantities of water, sand and chemicals are used in the fracking process and these are mostly left in the wells afterwards; some 20% of the water used in the process either is reused or is injected thousands of feet underground into disposal wells. The well pad and related hydraulic fracturing infrastructure take up around 8-9 acres of land per operation. This and the related impacts that fracking has on the environment has been met with much criticism by environmentalists.

Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Do the benefits of fracking outweigh environmental concerns?

Some economists state that the benefits that fracking has given economies that implement it worldwide, far outweigh the negative effects that fracking has on the environment, claiming that it is a safe process and provides extraordinary opportunities for states and individuals alike.

According to the people involved in the fracking operations, fracking is a sure way to go, with definitive results and high yields, across a variety of valuable resources.

One of the major points of the argument is that fracking creates jobs, although this is obviously not the only way to measure its economic success. It has allowed the prices of natural gas and oil to subside considerably, natural gas and its byproducts have seen a huge increase in demand and reduction in price due to its availability. This means that because fracking has helped to lower energy prices, the costs of production have been reduced, creating a stronger platform for economic growth.

Environmentalists weigh-in on safety concerns

Environmentalists argue that fracking is unsafe; it damages natural infrastructure by removing necessary liquids from the environment and creating artificial fractures.

In some cases earthquakes have been reported in regions of high fracking activity and investigations have discovered that the seismic activity is man-made and the only explanation is ongoing fracking in these areas that previously experienced very little, if any, seismic activity.
Fracking brings about environmental concerns

Other major environmental concerns include the safety of drinking water near these fracking operations, where many cases of illness and increased risk of health hazards have been studied and documented by established institutions.

Air pollution is yet another environmental impact; fracking operations allow excessive quantities of methane and other toxic pollutants into the environment and often flaring off valuable excess gasses, completely wasting them.

Researchers have concluded that fracking is more toxic to the environment and to health than its benefits in the labor market and in lowering the costs of natural gas for industrial and household purposes.

Fracking as renewable energy

Environmentalists claim that instead of bridging the gap between non-renewable and renewable energy, fracking operations and the availability of natural gas at low rates has effectively become a major obstacle in the way of implementing renewable energy.

This is due to the fact that investors are not willing to invest in renewable energy operations while natural gas is virtually freely available, because setting up renewable energy operations is more expensive in the short-term and yields less than their counterparts yield.

Fracking protestors

This argument has continued for decades and is becoming hotter as new evidence and information becomes available. One thing that both sides agree upon is that if all fracking were to be stopped immediately, the negative economic impact would be felt globally.

Environmentalists are currently calling for stricter regulations in the fracking industry. They hope that by preventing new fracking operations from starting up, they may be able to assist in stabilizing the impact that it has on the environment but at the same time, prevent an economic shock in countries that have become accustomed to low energy costs due to the economic benefits of fracking.

Time will tell what happens to this debate, but in the meantime, we need to consider whether economic gain in the short run is worth the environmental costs in the end.

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  • Teaching Assistant and Community Support
    Interesting discussion this one.
    And I personally think we eventually need to stop with fracking, alternative energy sources are out there the problem is we are not using them as much as we could yet. If you see how bad this is for the environment I can't see how anyone would justify it, and usually I am not a person with big concerns for the environment.
    The problem I have with this is that I have the idea we have much more sophisticated and sustainable options already but they are being held back.

    It would be interesting to see your views and opinions on fracking! smile

    Regards,
    Timothy
  • Teaching Assistant and Community Supporter
    Not trying to be a pessimist about the future of the human race but i think the history of mankind (our survival in an organized societal form) from individual nations down to tribes as well was less driven by wisdom, foresight and planning, calculated weighing of risks and rewards, and far more by adaptation to the circumstances that our in hindsight often wrong choices have left us with. That means we will never give up on fossil fuels, nuclear power as long as it is economically more beneficial than the alternatives. Criticism welcome smile
  • I am surprised to see that Northwestern.edu would have prepared the cross section of Hydraulic Fracturing in the origins of fracking section. Surely they have SOMEONE in their many science departments that would want to suggest the black lightening bolts representing the extent & severity of the fractures created is a physical impossibility of exponential proportions. Regardless of their recklessness, do you really believe an oil company would pay for horsepower to break out of the target formation and destroy their well? The fracture treatment records the rock breaking in real-time using today's seismic recording devices. The stimulations are designed to break up the rock in the formation they are hoping to produce. There are no economics in paying for more.

    Other sources of transportation and fuel alternatives should be one of our main projects as a responsible human race. Are you suggesting we force the issue by cutting off our sources of an economic, stable, dependable energy source for our everyday/night use and begin using multiple, extremely expensive, experimental & inefficient alternate energy sources? If so, we will need quite a large committed asset base to cover the economic gap that would be created by this.

    If an alternate energy source conspiracy exists, rest assured our journalism machine will find it, right after the greedy entrepreneurs are setup to make billions on these sources & decide to release the secrets.

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