The Folly of Fracking

The development of more fossil fuels, particularly sources that come with an increasing social and environmental cost, is contrary to the long-term interests of the human species. By Kyle Boulden

Fracking – short for hydraulic fracturing – is a dangerous and unsustainable method of extracting oil and natural gas from shale other underground rock formations. It’s a hotly-debated topic these days, as both governments and citizens weigh the short term gains against the long-term costs associated with the drilling.

With rising oil prices, the world is being forced to adapt as fossil fuels become a less and less economical way to power the world.The monetary cost of oil and gas has begun to edge closer to capturing the actual social and environmental costs that come with relying on this energy source.

The monetary cost of oil and gas has begun to edge closer to capturing the actual social and environmental costs that come with relying on this energy source.

The situation has created an opportunity to drive meaningful change to find safe and renewable sources of energy, as well as to promote reduced consumption.

However, much of the energy industry has taken a different route, promoting the development of more expensive and dangerous sources of fossil fuels. With prices higher, companies have decided to tap into deposits that were previously considered too difficult and too expensive to extract. The fact is, these also come at a much higher social and environmental cost. The development of the tar sands in Alberta is one example of this, as is the rise in the use of hydraulic fracturing.

The fracking process involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in rock formations (“fracturing” it) in order to extract trapped pockets of oil and natural gas that would be unrecoverable by traditional methods.

The fracking process involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in rock formations (“fracturing” it) in order to extract trapped pockets of oil and natural gas that would be unrecoverable by traditional methods.

The wastewater is then disposed of by pumping it back into the ground, or when that’s not possible by processing it and sending it back into the environment.

A wide range of studies have shown that the process can poison the natural environment, but the industry’s proponents continue to dispute that. This is also despite compelling documentaries such as the CBC’s Burning Water, and the Academy Award-nominated Gasland, which have highlighted just how apparent these risks are.

Scientists have found all sorts of environmental problems created by the method of fracking. Leaks and discharges of dangerous chemicals have been documented at all steps of the process, and disposal of wastewater is environmentally damaging even in the most optimistic scenarios. The legislated method to “safely” dispose of the fluid used in fracking is to pump it back into the ground, where toxins can easily leak into and pollute local groundwater.

The base of this fluid being used is water, but it also contains a cocktail of dangerous chemicals and toxins. A United States House of Representatives study found that energy companies used no less than 13 different known carcinogens in the process.

A United States House of Representatives study found that energy companies used no less than 13 different known carcinogens in the process.

This includes everything from benzene and ethylene glycol (antifreeze), to hydrochloric acid. Also in the mix are radioactive particles like uranium and radium, used as tracers in the fracking fluid.

The results can be startling. In Pennsylvania in 2008, after local businesses complained that the water was corroding industrial equipment, dishwashers and faucets, it was determined that the Monongahela River, which provides most people in the Pittsburgh area with drinking water, no longer met state and federal standards. It took five months to clean it up.

As if that wasn’t enough, recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.K. Government have found that the injection of fracking wastewater deep into the ground can actually cause man-made earthquakes.

As if that wasn’t enough, recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.K. Government have found that the injection of fracking wastewater deep into the ground can actually cause man-made earthquakes.

The U.K. study connected the process to a series of quakes in northwestern England last year, while the U.S. study concluded that fracking was responsible for a six-fold increase in seismic events there, including a magnitude-5.3 quake in Colorado and a magnitude-4.0 quake in normally seismically-inactive Ohio.

Many in the business world have touted fracking as the potential solution the crisis of peak oil, opening up vast reserves of previous unrecoverable oil and gas, but such debates belie the real point. The development of more fossil fuels, particularly sources that come with an increasing social and environmental cost, is contrary to the long-term interests of the human species.

The development of more fossil fuels, particularly sources that come with an increasing social and environmental cost, is contrary to the long-term interests of the human species.

It’s not all bad news though. The dangers that have been highlighted in recent years have led Quebec, Nova Scotia and France to impose moratoriums on fracking until further scientific study is completed. In New Brunswick, where plans to exploit recently discovered deposits have hit a roadblock of opposition from a variety of groups and organizations, the government is said to be considering one as well.

Hopefully in the future more people will be able to see the folly of fracking. The solution to the world’s energy problems is not to seek out new sources of fossil fuels, but instead lies in developing non-polluting, renewable sources. It is possible for humanity to use their greater wisdom in order to make a decision that will best serve the long-term interests of our species.

(Original image from Gasland.)

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