by S. Thomas Bond
Fracking, the most recent method of extracting gas and oil, is the delight of some and the dread of an increasing part of the population. The arguments for it are exactly two in number: first, civilization is based on energy, and burning fuels is the way to energy; second, energy provides jobs to an area, albeit for a relatively short time.
The arguments against fracking are many, keen, and the list is growing. Unfortunately, many tend to view fossil fuels as the only feasible source of energy. This inability to distinguish between the conventional way of getting energy and energy itself is the product of science illiteracy and the not-so-subtle cultivation of the idea by our present-day energy industry.
The most pressing argument for ending use of fossil fuels is the accumulation of the colorless, odorless, chemical byproduct of burning, carbon dioxide, which is capable of converting a certain range of the sun’s wavelengths into heat we can feel. This is causing measurable warming worldwide, a widely studied phenomenon with seriously deleterious effects. If you “don’t believe in global warming,” you are like people who don’t believe in evolution or those who think the world is flat, not a sphere. You are either beyond evidence and reason, or too lazy to pursue the subject.
Why frack? Our national reserves of conventional gas and oil are approaching exhaustion, due to profligate use and export for decades. Easy reserves were found in porous rock, and all that was necessary was to drill down to the reservoir rock and pump from the well. The petroleum would make its way to the well through the pores in the rock, and wells would supply product for decades before becoming uneconomic.
As conventional reserves began to run out, we began importing more and more. Then, the Eastern Gas Shales Project, which ran from 1976 to 1992 at the Morgantown Energy Research Center, produced a way to actually break rock in shale reservoirs, which are not naturally permeable. George P. Mitchell worked with government financing to combine this new, higher hydraulic pressure with bending the drill stem to horizontal, special targeting control to keep the drill in the preferred strata, and a cadre of synthetic chemicals to produce the method that is now called “fracking.”
In the hinterland, where fracking is done, fear now runs rampant. Experience shows the new method, in practice for only a decade or so, causes a variety of harms, which drillers are unwilling to recognize or pay for. Large acreages are required for drilling, pipelines, and pump stations. These acres cannot be returned to their original use in the foreseeable future, as environmental problems result, such as sediment in streams and destruction of wildlife and domestic animals from the drilling and leaks of synthetic chemicals.
Devaluation of property also results. Who wants to live or farm near the noise, light, and smells of this industry? Roads are broken by a thousand or more trips to each well site for drilling and removal of waste. Tax money pays for this cost.
Sickness is well documented by over 1,700 medical research articles, illness such as asthma and other respiratory problems, abortion and low birth weights, heart problems, and endocrine (gland) disruption.
There are serious problems with fracking. It is high capital and low labor, compared to alternate forms of energy. There may be a lot of jobs at the construction phase, but these last only a few weeks, followed by only a few workers to operate the equipment. The jobs are specialized, so little is open to local men (very few women want this kind or work) except truck driving, and many cases are known where drivers are kept on the job 24 or more hours straight.
Fracked wells commonly have an economic life of 6 to 8 years, and the recovery is seldom more than 8 percent of the oil or gas in the ground. No chance of recovery of the rest is in sight. Increase in production is due to longer laterals (horizontal drilling segments of the well), not any real efficiency.
According to a report in a December Wall Street Journal titled “Wall Street Tells Frackers to Stop Counting Barrels, Start Making Profits,” the fracking industry has lost an amazing $280 billion since it began.
So what is the power behind fracking? Politics - the accumulated law and practice that allows the industry to rip off land and mineral owners, make its neighbors sick, and get the public to pay for road damage and emergencies. Cozy relations with glad- handing legislators and officials is a big factor. And not to be forgotten is inertia due to lack of scientific awareness, and general reluctance to change the way things are done.
Fracking is power over people and property, over a livable world, and over alternatives the world must have.
S. Thomas Bond, of Jane Lew, is a retired chemistry teacher and cattle farmer.
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