Natural gas is used as a source of energy for cooking, electricity generation and heating. It’s a fossil fuel used as fuel for vehicles as well as a chemical feedstock in manufacturing plastics and other organic chemicals. This non-renewable energy resource is found in deep underground rock formations and they are also associated with hydrocarbon reservoirs in coal beds and as methane clathrates.
In order to release gas from subsurface porous rock formations, a process called “fracking” is employed. This process is also known as hydrofracking which is short for hydraulic fracturing. The year 1949 marked the first commercial fracking operation and since then, about one million wells have been hydraulically fractured in the US alone. It’s even estimated that fracking will account for almost 70% of natural gas development in North America.
What happens during fracking is that large amounts of water are combined with a small amount of chemicals and sand. This combination is then pumped into a drilled gas well under high pressure. The main purpose of hydrofracking is to create small fractures in the rock through the use of water so that tiny existing fractures would open along the rock. Sand remains behind when the pressure is released and the water is removed. As such, it helps gas to flow more freely into the well by keeping the newly created fractures open.
Basically, the entire hydraulic fracturing process makes the mining of natural gas more economically possible. It is much different than conventional natural gas drilling because it uses more water, there is a potential for toxicity and there are environmental impacts. It’s these concerns, particularly fracking’s impact on the environment, that are being debated. Is it time to abandon the practice of fracking? Or are there really benefits to such a process? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of hydrofracking/
List of Pros of Hydrofracking
1. Using natural gas rather than coal has benefits.
Fracking supporters believe that the increased reliance on natural gas is creating more health benefits. Why is that so? The burning of natural gas doesn’t produce as much harmful particles in the air compared to the burning of coal.
Natural gas supply produced through fracking has displaced the burning of coal which has been responsible for the death of thousands each year. In 2008, coal was responsible for 50% of electricity generation in the US. By 2012, that number dwindled down to 37%.
On the other hand – and for the same period – electricity generation through natural gas increased from 20% to around 30%. Emissions for nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide have decreased dramatically as well. And so the rallying cry of those supporting fracking is this: fracking saves lives.
2. Natural gas produces less greenhouse gas emissions.
Supporters of fracking say that natural gas only produces 44 to 50% of greenhouse gases compared with the burning of coal. This is considered a benefit. Although there is research that shows methane is really harmful, the study was done using a 20-year time period. The way global warming potential is measured is through a 100-year period; and using that measure shows that methane isn’t as harmful as claimed.
While methane is indeed potent, the impact is brief unlike the impact of increased carbon dioxide emissions. One of the goals of fracking is to lessent the reliance of coal which is the biggest threat to the atmosphere.
3. It’s highly unlikely that fracking will contaminate drinking water supplies.
A well-run drilling operation is not likely to create a crack allowing chemicals to get to shallow aquifers and surface water supplies. Drinking water and oil and gas deposits are located at different levels in the ground. According to research, not a lot of major incidents happened between 2008 to 2011 across more than 3,500 wells in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania.
List of Cons of Hydrofracking
1. Using natural gas doesn’t guarantee safety for all.
While its true that natural gas may well indeed displace coal in areas such as North Carolina or West Virginia but the same thing cannot be said for Texas and other areas across the West. In other words: we can’t rely on fracking to improve air quality.
But air quality isn’t the only issue associated with fracking. For one, the air quality dynamics linked with fracking operations is not really understood. Plus, it’s not really known what the health impacts of fracking are for the residents and workers.
Studies from Colorado and Utah have also shown that there are under-appreciated problems with air quality, particularly when relating to the ozone. But above all: natural gas is a fossil fuel and a non-renewable energy source. Put simply, it’s not the clear cut answer to cleaning up the air.
If achieving cleaner air was really the goal, why not go for much better alternatives such as wind, solar and geothermal? These alternative energy sources produce little to not harmful particulates.
2. Methane emissions eliminates greenhouse gas benefits of natural gas derived from fracking.
This is according to a study conducted by Cornell. Here’s a fact: leaked methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. When this escapes the well, it will remove whatever benefit there is of using natural gas that was produced through fracking.
The lowering of natural gas costs will drive people to use more energy and as such, will eliminate the benefits of gas, particularly its “clean” benefit. Plus, the cheaper natural gas becomes, the less attention will be paid to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
3. Fracking is risking human health through the contamination of drinking water supplies.
A major study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that high-volume fracking techniques can indeed contaminate drinking water. Not only that, there have been a number of reports across the United States about fouled tap water; in fact, some have turned bubbly and flammable due to increased methane.
Well blowouts have also happened and these are dangerous for the environment. Even worse, one in five chemicals used in fracking are classified as trade secrets. Plus, there are companies that don’t follow federal or state regulations.