April 1st, 2014
America is in the midst of a fracking boom. Most new oil and gas wells in this country are drilled using hydraulic fracturing, the injection of a cocktail of water and chemicals at high pressure to release bubbles of oil or gas trapped in shale rock. Thanks to fracking, America is awash in cheap natural gas and is poised to become the world’s largest petroleum producer next year. That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“People thought that the United States was tapped out.” says Russell Gold, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and author of The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World. “There’s more energy than we frankly know what to do with right now.” But some say the boom comes with a cost. Opponents of fracking cite risks to groundwater supplies, and argue that it’s not climate friendly. Mark Zoback, a professor of Geophysics at Stanford agrees that when dealing with a large industrial process like fracking, things can go wrong, but that fracking itself isn’t the problem. “The real problem is well construction,” Zoback says, “and if you do a good job of building a well, and we know how to build wells, we really can prevent the kinds of problems we should worry about below the earth’s surface, and that is the leakage that could contaminate aquifers that could leak gas to the atmosphere and obviate the benefit of using natural gas instead of coal, for example, for greenhouse gas emissions.”
Gold and Zoback recently sat down at the Commonwealth Club to weigh in on the costs and benefits of fracking, along with Trevor Houser, co-author of Fueling Up: The Economic Implications of America’s Oil and Gas Boom. Houser speaks to the economic benefit of fracking, but cautions against believing any hype. “The climate consequences of the gas boom have been oversold by environmentalists, the climate benefits of the gas boom have been oversold by the industry,” Houser says. “Same as the economic story….it’s not as good as you think, it’s not as bad as you think.” Hype or not, it’s a boom that’s taking place right in our own backyard, says Russell Gold. “This is not an energy boom that’s happening above the Arctic Circle in Alaska or way off in Gulf of Mexico over the horizon,” Gold says. “This is happening in county after county in many places. And while that is intrusive and while we are talking about an industrial process, if we’re not doing it here in the United States, it’s going to be done somewhere else.”
Photos by Ed Ritger