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The Real Story Behind the Fracking Debate

Are you confused by the debate over fracking? I'm not surprised. The public debate is complex, angry, boisterous, a mix of science intertwined with politics, and complicated by a lack of information (or even intentional disinformation) on all sides.
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By now, if you have any interest in water, energy, international security and politics, climate change, environmental impacts on small communities, or any number of other issues of the day, you have seen, heard, or read something about "fracking" -- the shorthand name for the process of hydraulic fracturing.

Are you confused by the debate over fracking?

I'm not surprised. The public debate is complex, angry, boisterous, a mix of science intertwined with politics, and complicated by a lack of information (or even intentional disinformation) on all sides. And like many other complex problems, the reality is often somewhere in between the extreme points of view that are highlighted in the media, which seems less and less able to appreciate, report, and acknowledge nuance and subtlety around complex scientific issues.

Fracking is not good or bad: it is a process to increase the production of fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, from certain geological formations. But good or bad things can happen as a result of fracking, depending on how it is implemented, where it is pursued, the technologies used, and the actions taken to increase its benefits and reduce its impacts. And whether or not you support or oppose fracking depends on how those benefits and impacts are perceived, distributed, addressed, and valued -- and whether it is in your backyard.

Do you benefit economically from fracking operations? Do you support U.S. energy independence and hope that fracking will reduce U.S. imports of imported energy? Do you worry about climate change and feel that fracking can help reduce dependence on much dirtier coal by increasing availability of cleaner burning natural gas? Then you're likely to support expanded fracking. Some have hailed it as a game-changer that promises increased energy independence, job creation, and lower energy prices.

But do you live in a rural community where the impacts of expanded drilling, extraction operations, and water contamination are being felt? Do you worry that your local environmental and social costs outweigh the economic benefits that are likely to accrue to other parties? Do you feel that U.S. national energy priorities should be to reduce all fossil fuel combustion in favor of domestic renewable energy production? Do you feel that regulatory oversight and environmental enforcement is insufficient to protect against the downsides of rapid expansion of fracking operations? Then you're likely to oppose expanded fracking. And opponents have called for a temporary moratorium or even a complete ban on hydraulic fracturing due to concern over environmental, social, and public health concerns.

There ARE some fracking facts that are relevant (as opposed to opinion):
  • The U.S. uses a lot of energy, primarily fossil fuels.
  • We import a substantial amount of that energy at a real economic and political cost.
  • Natural gas contributes far less than coal to climate-changing greenhouse gas pollution (and other pollution), per unit energy produced -- but far more than renewable energy options that can also reduce dependence on coal.
  • Fracking requires substantial amounts of water and sometimes nasty chemicals (at least the way it is practiced now).
  • There is growing evidence of both potential and actual threats of damages to local water resources.
  • Most significantly, we don't know enough about these threats to make wise decisions because monitoring and regulatory oversight are inconsistent from state to state, and weak and inadequate.

The Pacific Institute has just released a new study on the issues associated with fracking, especially risks to the nation's water resources. Authored by Heather Cooley and Kristina Donnelly, this assessment was based on extensive interviews with a diverse group of stakeholders, including the industry itself, representatives from state and federal agencies, academia, environmental groups, and community-based organizations from across the United States. When honest and open discussions occur, there is surprising agreement among them about the range of concerns and issues associated with hydraulic fracturing. The top six key concerns were:

  1. Spills or leaks of contaminated water or fracking fluids into the surrounding environment.
  2. Storing, transporting, treating, and appropriately treating or disposing of wastewater
  3. Water requirements for fracking competing with other water needs in water-scarce regions.
  4. Truck traffic and impacts on air quality in rural communities.
  5. Lack of comprehensive and credible data and information to clearly assess the risks and develop sound policies to minimize those risks.
  6. The failure to clarify terms and definitions about the hydraulic fracturing process.

What is critically apparent is that the dialogue about hydraulic fracturing -- to the extent there has been a dialogue rather than a series of monologues -- has been marked by confusion and obfuscation due to a lack of clarity about the terms used, serious data and information gaps, and ideological positions. A more fruitful and informed debate is the only thing likely to lead to appropriate energy, water, and environmental policies. But the current debate is rarely well-informed, and even less frequently, fruitful. Can we figure out how to reap the benefits of fracking without suffering, unnecessarily, the adverse costs? If not, opposition will continue to grow, and it will be deserved.

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