The Oil from Fracking Flows Freely in a Fractured Society

Environmental Policy Brief #162 | By: Todd J. Broadman | October 31, 2023

Photo taken from: nypost.com

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Policy Summary:

The U.S. policy of energy independence is no more apparent than in the oil and gas fracking industry. This need for carbon energy has led to thousands of new oil leases and the increased oil extraction has moved the U.S. ahead of Saudi Arabia as the globe’s biggest oil producer. The related policies and resulting drilling activity has come at a cost. Fracking technology now allows operators to drill vertically, and then horizontally for thousands of feet. To do that requires mammoth quantities of water: as much as 40 million gallons per gas well. Water in deep aquifers that, once extracted, will not be replenished for generations. In addition, the resulting wastewater from this process contains arsenic, salts, radium, and other toxic chemicals. Alarming levels of methane are released as well. At large scale, these projects are termed “monster fracks.” Approximately 80 percent of current U.S. natural gas production and 65 percent of crude oil now comes from fracked wells; more than 17.6 million Americans reside within a mile of a fracked oil or gas well.

In states like Texas where 40 percent of fracked wells are located, frackers require no permits to drill their own groundwater wells, much less compliance regulations that require reporting. Ironically, there are water restrictions in place for residential users throughout drought-stricken communities in Texas while vast unregulated quantities of water are extracted for fracked wells. The oil and gas lobbies have effectively paralyzed Congress from holding the industry accountable for its environmental damage.

Federal policies have given states like Texas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania a green light to keep drilling. The Biden administration has actually approved more drilling permits, over 6,500 of them, than the Trump administration. These, along with other existing leases represent close to 24 million acres of public land. Although the Interior Department has made modest reforms regarding lease rules, there is no overarching policy to curtail or otherwise end fracking. If the U.S. actually applied United Nations recommendations to address climate change, all oil and gas extraction would end by 2031. A full quarter of U.S. greenhouse gases are attributed to fossil fuel extraction. The U.S. along with other OECD countries are, for the most part, turning a blind eye to this recommendation and to the longer-term consequences.

Among the groups with the strongest opposition to fracking and oil exploration, are, in general, coalitions of native tribes, community residents, and environmental groups. For example, in Colorado, residents fear a proposed fracking project will contaminate a local reservoir. In the big fracking states, these groups are suing with evidence-based claims that fracking is consuming and poisoning finite water resources and is a real health threat. One study found that pregnant women residing in the Eagle Ford Shale region of Texas “had 50 percent greater odds of giving birth prematurely than those who did not.”

The science points to very real risks though. The EPA has tracked 180,000 fracked wells and estimates that each day 2 billion gallons of toxic wastewater require safe disposal. This was water that was injected to fracture shale under pressure and then returned to the surface. A 2022 paper in the Journal of Health Economics concluded there is correlation with increased preterm births and low birth weight: “drilling near an infant’s public water source yields poorer birth outcomes and more fracking-related contaminants in public drinking water.”

For their part, the industry is “focused on meeting the growing demand for affordable, reliable energy while minimizing impacts on the environment,” according to the American Petroleum Institute’s Holly Hopkins. Confronted with university research that documents the ill health effects of fracking wells to local residents, the Marcellus Shale Coalition countered that these published studies “relied on statistical modeling rather than actual exposure,” adding that these are activists attempting to “drive more dollars to already well-funded activist organizations.” Monster frackers like BP are making public relations efforts to appease concerned communities, stating that they are “executing several pilot projects to recycle water to minimize freshwater usage.” Like BP, Chevron claims it uses “brackish or recycled water” for fracking.

Policy Analysis:

Not only is the United States the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, at fracking’s current pace of development there will be the equivalent of 454 new coal plants by 2050.  The Permian basin is rich in oil and covers 86,000 square miles in Texas and accounts for 40% of all U.S. oil extraction. Wells there have to be drilled to longer and longer lengths to get at the oil and gas and that equates to vastly greater water requirements. “As the easier-to-extract areas are tapped to their full potential, you need to use more and more desperate measures,” said A.J. Kondash, a scientist with RTI International. Those desperate measures find justification by an industry that rests upon the fact that natural gas gives off about half the CO2 gas as coal.

Critics see a spiraling of negative environmental consequences as scarce aquifers, made even scarcer by droughts, are being depleted by fracking operations that contribute significantly to furthering global heat and drought. Jeremy Nichols, program director with WildEarth Guardians points to a glaring lack of political will. “While it’s shameful President Biden is not living up to his promise to pause new oil and gas leasing to protect the climate,” he emphasized, “it’s even more shameful he’s rubberstamped Trump-era leases.” And while the critics lament, industry supporters celebrate the U.S.’s deserved energy independence and a strengthened economy.

The shift to sustainable energy sources is far too slow to replace the carbon that fuels America. There needs to be a willingness among the majority of citizens to alter lifestyles, to change a culture of consumption. Lacking that, the drilling will continue unabated as a further sign of a fractured and fragile society.

Engagement Resources:

  • https://e360.yale.edu/ Yale Environment 360 offers opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues.
  • https://environmentamerica.org/ is a national network of 30 state environmental groups. Their staff work together for clean air, clean water, clean energy, wildlife and open spaces, and a livable climate.
  • https://www.niehs.nih.gov/ The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is expanding and accelerating its contributions to scientific knowledge of human health and the environment, and to the health and well-being of people everywhere.

 

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