Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Hydraulic Fracking: The Perils of Opportunity

By Audrey NozierePublished December 26, 2020

Though fracking has been a central point of contention during the presidential debates, it has been part of society for more than 70 years. Over that time, it has assumed a place of prominence in the U.S. energy sector: according to the Independent Petroleum Association of America, fracking has produced more than 1.7 million wells and 7 billion barrels of oil in the U.S. alone. In simple terms, fracking refers to the process of drilling 1-2 miles from the surface to reach a deep layer of rock. A fracking fluid is then inserted at high pressure into rocks and crude oil and natural gas are extracted from the high-pressure cavities. Fracking first gained popularity in the 1940s as a new and innovative way of providing clean energy and energy security in the United States. Though fracking allows for economic prosperity and energy independence, its immense environmental and social impacts significantly outweigh its benefits. Arguably, fracking is the antithesis of innovation as it reinforces our reliance on fossil fuels and perpetuates an antiquated, unsustainable energy system. 


The biggest problem with fracking is the disastrous environmental consequences it wreaks on entire ecosystems. Indeed, many studies have linked fracking to the contamination of water wells that are used to provide drinking water to residents. Contamination from chemicals used in fracking occurs when highly toxic fracking fluid leaks from the injection sites into faults and is absorbed into soil and groundwater, a process sometimes exacerbated by poor construction practices. This effect is especially disastrous for wells close to the drill site; a study conducted by Duke University has demonstrated that water wells that are less than 0.5 miles away from the drilling are 17 times more likely to be contaminated with than those further away. This spillage is extremely dangerous as it can leak into homes and become explosive. Not only does fracking threaten clean water, it also threatens the local water supply in many regions that already face scarcity. According to the U.S EPA, 70 to 140 billion gallons of water were necessary for fracking in the US in 2010 which is more than the city of Denver used at the same time. 


Another concern is the contribution of fracking emissions to climate change. Fracking is often portrayed as a clean fossil fuel because it produces 45% less CO2 than coal, yet over the entire fracking process, from extraction to combustion, immense amounts of methane and CO2 are released. Though climate change is often attributed to CO2 emissions, methane can still be blamed for 25% of the earth’s warming and researchers estimate that fracking’s methane will represent roughly 44% of United States Greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades. With methane emissions on an exponential rise, the dramatic impacts of fracking cannot be ignored.


Nevertheless, it is important to understand the economic and social benefits of the fracking process. Fracking is deeply rooted in many local economies, as the sector fuels employment and economic prosperity. A natural gas boom starting in 2007 and gaining momentum in 2010 helped push the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession and created hundreds of thousands of jobs. The Department of Energy contends that fracking and shale gas annual profits could reach $47 billion by 2020. Moreover, fracking has significantly lowered the price of natural gas— approximately 47% since 2013 which has allowed the U.S. to develop energy independence by decreasing American dependence on foreign fossil fuels. Fracking’s integral position in our economy means that it cannot be eliminated immediately, however, continuing to build new wells and base our energy system on fracking is not sustainable, and pursuing it precludes investment in sustainable, clean energy. Though the economic benefits of fracking are real, they are ephemeral. 

While fossil fuels represent a significant portion of the economy, the status quo is not sustainable. It is imperative that people realize the alarming rate at which our planet is deteriorating and act immediately to prevent any further damage. Studies have shown that investments in clean and renewable energy are proving to be more profitable than fossil fuels in the United States and Europe. Hence, replacing fracking with a cleaner energy system would act as a buffer to economic and environmental catastrophes and drive growth in the renewable energy sector.

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