Opinion

The huge downside to fracking that everyone is ignoring

If the booming natural gas industry isn't adequately regulated, then it must be stopped

The oil and natural gas boom brought on by innovations in fracking is the biggest development in U.S. energy in years. Politicians across the ideological spectrum have hailed a drilling technology that could put the U.S. on a course to energy independence, with President Obama using his State of the Union speech in January to praise natural gas as a "bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."

Indeed, fracking has caused major economic booms in places like North Dakota and southern Texas, which are awash in a sea of drilling money. The U.S. market is swamped with cheap natural gas, and even some environmentalists have lauded the fracking boom, largely because natural gas tends to displace coal, a much dirtier fuel that is both polluting our air and driving climate change.

However, there are reasons to be skeptical of this success story. The environmental benefits of natural gas are critically dependent on the security of pipelines and generators involved in fracking, which entails shooting a slurry of chemicals into shale rock, an intensive process that can unleash many dangerous pollutants and chemicals if drillers aren't responsible.

One of those chemicals is methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Even small leaks can seriously erode any climate benefits provided by natural gas. And if there are such leaks and pollution, then fracking must be stopped, and fairly soon.

A big new report from Inside Climate News shows that in a shale drilling area in Texas known as Eagle Ford — a huge expanse of some 20,000 square miles — industry watchdogs and state regulators are falling down on the job. Some highlights from the report:

  • "Texas' air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford..."
  • "Thousands of oil and gas facilities...are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state..."
  • "Companies that break the law are rarely fined..."
  • "The Texas legislature has cut the TCEQ's [the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state regulator] budget by a third since the Eagle Ford boom began... The amount allocated for air monitoring equipment dropped from $1.2 million to $579,000.
  • "The Eagle Ford boom is feeding an ominous trend: A 100 percent statewide increase in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production since 2009..."

This comes on top of previous studies finding large-scale methane leaks from natural gas production.

The news almost couldn't be worse. For even a casual student of history, it was obvious from the start that the fracking boom would take stiff oversight to have a prayer of fulfilling its promise. It almost goes without saying, but the extractive industry itself is not to be trusted. Drillers want money, which means getting their product to market as quickly and cheaply as possible. They tend to skimp on maintenance and repairs, leading to foreseeable breakdowns. Witness the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Michigan dilbit spill, the West Virginia chemical spill, or dozens of others.

Instead, we're basically going full deregulation. As a result, these companies are not making money in any sort of reasonable approximation of a free and fair market. Indeed, they are effectively engaged in a colossal heist. Polluting the collective commons without paying to clean it up is theft and a violation of property rights. As one of the farmers profiled by Inside Climate News says, "We are about liberty and freedom...but they are trespassing with their emissions."

But Texas is awash with oil money, and the drillers have bought up the whole state political system with it.

So what should we do? It would be best if we could get some sterner regulations in place, which is purportedly what Obama and other pro-fracking Democrats want to do. That way we could focus on coal first, since it is still the major villain when it comes to destroying the environment.

But given the likelihood of continuing regulator passivity at the state level (not to mention the snowball-in-hell's-chance of a federal climate bill), fracking will soon have to be folded into the general anti-carbon pollution effort. Increasingly, an outright push towards renewables and away from all carbon-based fuel makes the most sense.

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