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The Fracking Controversy and the Future of Energy

By Mikenna Montgomery

Source: iStock

The fracking controversy attracts a sea of perspectives. Big Oil supporters on Wall Street believe that the transition from coal to natural gas will transform the Unites States into the energy powerhouse. Environmentalists are the impassioned opposition, asserting that the risk is not worth the reward. Scientists, economists, and policy-makers occupy the middle ground with their attempts to find an optimal solution – Geologists guide us to the shale beneath the ground but simultaneously forewarn of the significant seismic and climatic consequences, while policy analysts argue that natural gas is the fuel that will propel us into a decarbonized future.

Yet, the clearest indictment of fracking is simply rooted in the fact that natural gas is a non-renewable resource; and if humans hope to have a future on Earth, redirecting the focus toward renewable energy is crucial.

The shortcomings of the natural gas industry are most evident by the environmental consequences. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is the process of injecting water, chemicals, and proppants into the subsurface under high pressure. The objective is to facilitate the flow of natural gas by creating permanent fractures in rock layers thousands of feet below the surface. However, if the fracking site is in close proximity to a fault zone, the process can inadvertently disrupt the stress balance, which sustains a sedentary fault either by the extension of fractures into the fault zone or by the added pressure of accumulating wastewater. Faults that are normally dormant or insignificant in terms of seismicity, suddenly become critically active.

The most exemplary case to date is that of Oklahoma, where 900 times more earthquakes have occurred since 2008. Oklahoma is over a thousand miles away from the nearest tectonic boundary, and before 2008, it had experienced approximately two earthquakes of minimal significance per year. In a state where slight tremors were once considered rare, citizens must now plan for earthquake hazards comparable to those in California.

On the other hand, earthquake damage is unlikely to make an impact of greater magnitude than that of the “Shale Revolution,” the economic boom that proceeded the transition from oil to natural gas. Some experts argue that the transition has made remarkable progress since 2005, boasting a ten percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions, and an approximate annual contribution to the U.S. economy of $100 billion. Moreover, U.S. counties using at least one well to extract natural gas exhibited an 8 percent increase in personal income.

Economic gain has blinded the beneficiaries of the oil and gas industry. While they have always been indifferent to the environmental consequences, they have begun to overlook the financial consequences as well.

While the fracking method may not emit as much CO2 as coal production, natural gas extraction and transportation was responsible for 31 percent of methane emissions in the United States as of 2017. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than CO2 on a 100-year basis and 70 times more potent on a 20-year basis. Not to mention, the social cost of methane is estimated at a whopping $1,400 per metric ton. On top of the increased levels of methane looming over us in the atmosphere, natural gas is not as cheap as advertised. In fact, the production of an average well declines more than 85 percent in the first three years. Additionally, sixty of the largest producers of natural gas had an aggregate negative cash flow of $9 billion per quarter between 2012 and 2017. If we are to rely on natural gas, extraction operations will require enormous investments in order for production to match growing demand as we move further away from coal.

If the industry is unable to generate enough cash to keep up with increasing demand and rapid decline in productivity, then how can we expect natural gas to be a catalyst for innovation in the energy sector?

The solution is simple – we should be focusing our financial and innovative power on reliable energy systems. There are numerous renewable energy resources that are already available or are in development. Wind, solar, and geothermal power to name a few, are far better suited to accomplish the global environmental and economic goals of sustainable development. We need sources of energy that won’t dry up or trigger unnatural disasters. Renewable is the only way.

Mikenna Montgomery is UCSD Master of International Affairs graduate student.