In just the past few years a revolution in carbon extraction technology has radically transformed our energy economy. Previously untapped natural gas reserves, trapped by giant rock formations thousands of feet below the Earth's surface, are now accessible to us thanks to something called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The natural gas boom that we are now experiencing has cut natural gas prices in half since 2008, and has hastened the demise of the coal industry, which now only provides a third of our energy supply. The political establishment has been almost universal in its praise of this development, calling natural gas a healthier alternative to oil and coal and "an ideal energy source that we potentially can use for the next hundred years," as President Obama put it in July.
Indeed, energy independence--and the economic opportunities that come with it--may be an admirable goal. But then there's this: fracking is causing earthquakes. Federal scientists presented a new study this week to the American Geophysical Union that suggests natural gas drilling is the likely culprit behind a skyrocketing number of earthquakes in the Raton Basin in Colorado and New Mexico. From 1970 to 2001, there were just five earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in that region. Then, companies began injecting what's called "wastewater fluid" from natural gas drilling into the Earth. After that, from 2001 to 2011, there were a total of 95 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater--an increase of 1,900%. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey concluded in their report that "the majority, if not all of the earthquakes since August 2001 have been triggered by the deep injection of wastewater related to the production of natural gas from the coal-bed methane field."
The spike in seismic activity isn't the only anecdotal evidence of the harm caused by fracking, either. Much of the science remains contested and preliminary, and activists on both sides have produced studies to buttress their claims. But anti-fracking activists have called for the practice to be restrained until the extent of its health effects can be fully known. For example, researchers at Cornell University published a report in January demonstrating an anecdotal link between fracking and illness in food animals. The authors compiled 24 case studies of farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced health problems after being exposed to fracking chemicals. As they wrote in their report, "The most dramatic case was the death of 17 cows within one hour from direct exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid."
Even those experts who acknowledge these potentially noxious effects argue that the alternative to fracking--an increased reliance on especially dirty sources of energy, like coal--is far worse. "We know that emissions from burning coal cause tremendous damage to health," Lynn Goldman, dean of the School of Public Health at George Washington University and one of three academic experts reviewing the health effects of fracking for the state of New York, told the Associated Press last week. "A decision not to frack is a decision to use more coal." Indeed, that argument is a popular one among proponents of natural gas, including President Obama. The science does seem to indicate that natural gas burns much more cleanly than coal, producing far less carbon and reducing our impact on the climate.
But even that apparent benefit is far more complicated than it seems. While natural gas itself produces fewer direct carbon emissions, the risk of methane leakage during the hydraulic fracturing process potentially makes fracking just as bad for the climate as coal and diesel, if not more so. Natural gas is made up mostly of methane, which is as much 100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. When energy companies drill down to extract that methane, they try to contain as much of it as possible. But some of it inevitably leaks out. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas "undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming," Robert Howarth, a researcher at Cornell University, wrote in a study last year. The fact that fracking is no better than coal or diesel, Howard wrote, suggests that "substituting shale gas for these other fossil fuels may not have the desired effect of mitigating climate warming."
Much more study remains to be done, and the technology may well improve enough in the coming years to make fracking a safe and reliable source of energy. But given the preliminary evidence that fracking can sicken livestock, pollute the environment and even cause seismic activity, many activists are left to ask: What, exactly, is the case for fracking? Instead, they argue, we should be investing more aggressively in renewable sources of energy, and pursuing a future where our energy economy is no longer dependent on fossil fuels. "Drilling for natural gas has some disastrous environmental consequences. It will speed climate change, not help stave it off," Howarth, the Cornell researcher, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News last month. "We should focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels, not finding more of them."