I’m from Houston, the largest city in Texas and fourth largest in the United States with a GDP to match. With over 5,000 energy firms doing business in our greater metropolitan area and leading the world in petrochemical manufacturing thanks to the top ranked Port of Houston, we lay claim to the title “energy capital of the world.” Unsurprisingly, I grew up in Houston because my dad has worked for the past 35 years in the energy industry. Specifically, he’s spent most of his career involved in natural gas and, most recently, the U.S. shale gas revolution. Because of the huge economic impact it is having on American energy independency as well as its controversial extraction methods, shale gas has received a lot of media attention these past few years. Most of this attention, however, is seldom positive.
Opponents to hydraulic fracturing cite the migration of gas into groundwater resulting from the drilling as a serious health risk. However, the incidence rate of the construction of faulty well seals is only 1-3%, and most of the allegedly affected areas have longstanding reserves of methane unrelated to fracking that lack any kind of pre-drilling baseline data.
Anti-fracking groups also claim that hydraulic fracturing fluids contain dangerous chemicals not disclosed to the public, that the process itself uses outrageous quantities of water, and that disposal of wastewater harms the environment. In actuality, hydraulic fracturing fluid is typically comprised of more than 99.5% water and sand, and 0.5% chemicals, most of which are present in common household applications. The industry is taking steps to voluntarily disclose more information about the chemical composition of fracking fluids, and some states have even established mandatory reporting requirements.
Companies are working to lessen the overall amount of water used in the process through technological advances, and shale gas production requires less water than conventional production of oil and other forms of energy (compare 1.3 gallons per MMBTU for shale gas to more than 2,500 gallons per MMBTU for biofuels). Wastewater is most commonly disposed of through injection into deep, lined, underground wells where it is not at risk of contaminating freshwater resources, and with advances in onsite treatment technologies the percentage of wastewater being recycled by companies is increasing.
And though some anti-fracking groups claim that the drilling technology is too new to judge its environmental effects and lacks scientific research on the subject, a significant number of studies have been undertaken by universities, governmental agencies, and independent research groups exploring the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment.
All of this is not to say that these concerns about shale gas are not valid; there is no such thing as a riskless energy source. Rather, my frustration stems from the seemingly one-sided approach most media takes in airing the aforementioned potentially negative impacts of the shale revolution without balancing them out by reporting on the positive externalities.
Not nearly as publicized as the heated debates over fracking consequences are the huge benefits the shale revolution is bringing to the United States. Oil and natural gas provided more energy in the United States for residential and industrial use than any other energy source in 2010—37% and 25%, respectively. But you’ll probably have to pick up a scientific journal to find an IHS report’s estimation that mainly due to lower energy prices, average disposable income per household increased by more than $1,200 in 2012 and is predicted to grow to more than $3,500 by 2025.
Maybe tucked away in one of the back pages of the newspaper you’ll read about the $12 billion the natural gas industry invested in Pennsylvania in 2011, supporting the creation of more than 200,000 jobs across the region. The American Chemistry Council determined that a 25% increase in domestic ethane supplies derived from shale gas could add over 400,000 jobs across the economy, provide over $4.4 billion annually in federal, state, and local tax revenue, and spur $16.2 billion in capital investment by the chemical industry.
Switching to natural gas over coal-fired power plants, a transformation already well underway thanks to the discovery and extraction of newly accessible shale resources, also greatly reduces comparative environmental degradation an increases public health. Air pollution, mostly from coal burning, kills over three million people each year (primarily in the developing world); coal-fired power plants in the United States emit 17-40 times more SOx emissions per MWh than natural gas, and 1-17 times as much NOx per MWh. Lifecycle CO2 emissions from coal plants are 1.8-2.3 times greater (per KWh) than natural gas emissions.
So as someone who has worked in and been raised around the natural gas industry her entire life, I tend to bristle at sensationalistic news reports or disparaging Hollywood portrayals that all too often depict shale gas extraction as the single greatest threat to America’s health and happiness. Shale play development is bolstering the U.S. economy, reducing energy-related environmental degradation, increasing public health, and increasing national security by lessening our dependence upon unstable foreign oil sources. Hydraulic fracturing is not going anywhere anytime soon, so rather than fighting it (which is distinct from educating about it), we should instead continue to focus on improving existing energy technologies, implementing regulatory measures that prioritize public safety and environmental consciousness, and developing alternative energy sources to position us for a more secure, sustainable future.