Are fracking proponents wrestling enough with the environmental risks?

August 14, 2013
How much will natural gas extraction put the nation's groundwater at risk? (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
How much will natural gas extraction put the nation's groundwater at risk? (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In our Wonkblog Crowdsourced discussion of the likely economic and business consequences of an era of more plentiful natural gas, a recurring theme among commenters is that the damage to water supplies could be more severe than enthusiasts of fracking technologies let on.

Argues reader "Dbizzness":

How about asking why is natural gas so cheap? Domestic, check. Abundant supplies, check. Virtually unregulated, CHECK!

I note this not because I am opposed to natural gas, but because I believe natural gas could and should continue to be the cheap, abundant energy source of the future, just that it should do so in a responsible way that takes steps to minimize if not eliminate the risk of preventable environmental damage. The sudden collapse of the high-rise textile factory in Bangladesh forced many Americans to confront long overlooked difficult and inconvenient questions about the true costs - human and otherwise - that are required to provide westerners a nearly limitless selection of low-cost clothing. In a sense, the imagery and death toll was too vivid and depressing to ignore. Unfortunately, despite the Deep Water Horizon disaster, the true costs of [oil & gas] exploration and extraction continue to linger, or simply fall victim to the unfortunate and hyperbolic laissez-faire politics pushed by the industry.
In the absence of serious conversations about the impacts of fracking, near irreversible damage is being done to air and water quality, not to mention hundreds of thousands of acres of land, often in extremely fertile agricultural regions. The industry's anti-regulation stance is not rationally related to its survival or the industry's economic viability. I have little doubt that an industry that is turning once poor farmers into overnight millionaires while collectively yielding 100s of $Billions in profits (not revenues) year over year can afford to spend an additional sum per well to minimize risks to the environment, particularly to air and water.

Reader "duffworx" sees grave risks to the nation's water supply:

Mr. Ke says "Some groundwater pollution is a price worth paying to avert a global climate catastrophe and to reduce America's current, per capita, [greenhouse gas] emissions which are a moral crime against current and future generations of humans." Water is the looming catastrophe. Fouling this irreplaceable asset is a moral crime at least equal to [greenhouse gas] emitting. I'd say the two problems are interwoven and must be addressed in tandem.

In a separate post, though, "duffworx" argues that technology will eventually catch up and reduce the environmental cost of extracting shale gas.

The advantages to a domestic source of natural gas will put great pressure against writing and enforcing new regulations to limit the environmental damage caused by the extraction technique of "fracking." However, the threat to water supplies will become apparent and two benefits will emerge from that. New technologies will be developed to minimize the water threat, creating new business both to manufacture the new devices (better casings, seals, diverters, etc.) and new jobs will be created to build, install, service and regulate them. Regulation will follow capacity to comply, and we will have the best of both worlds. The "bridge energy" function can be served while the country benefits from cheaper energy and (relatively) cleaner extraction.

Weigh in with your own thoughts on the business and economic consequences--and related environmental risks--posed by new natural gas extraction technologies here, or  upvote the comments you find most compelling.

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