Weighing the benefits: The case for fracking

These days, energy and its consequences seem to be on everyone’s mind. From climate talks in Lima to the Keystone Pipeline and its subsequent veto, recently governments have found themselves under pressure to balance their energy needs with the environmental costs of providing power to billions of people.

As businesses and populations grow, both the public and private sectors have begun to look for previously untapped sources of energy. One of the largest of these sources is natural gas trapped under shale, which must be extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing. It has been instituted on a larger scale across the United States fairly recently as the fracking boom started in 2009, a mere six years ago.

Debate over fracking’s negative effects is very polarized, and very opaque. On one hand people are stretching the truth to try to get fracking banned. For example, one homeowner in Texas made a video in which he was able to light what was coming out of his garden hose on fire. However when taken to court, they dismissed it as a hoax. The court ruled that the landowner had “under the advice or direction” of an environmental activist, “intentionally attach[ed] a garden hose to a gas vent — not a water line” in the video in question.

On the other hand, there are corporations actually drilling and doing the fracking, who have a vested interest in public opinion remaining positive towards hydraulic fracking. Fracking companies claim that the process is safe, but there have been issues in the transparency of their process. Because the chemical content used in the process of extraction is confidential business information, these companies do not need to report what chemicals they are using in the fracking process. So who do we trust? At this point, it is hard to tell what the full impact of fracking is upon the environment, because it is such a relatively new process. However, we are already able to see how fracking is affecting the international community.

Since the fracking boom began in 2009, foreign oil consumption in the United States has dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent, and our daily oil production has increased by 3.7 million barrels a day. This is huge, as the U.S. is the largest consumer of natural gas in the world. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration nearly 27 million MMcf (million cubic feet) of natural gas was consumed in 2014. We must import natural gas to keep up with our demand, which means spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year importing gas into the country. If full energy independence was achieved, this substantial chunk of money could be used for anything from job creation to social security.

Cheap energy costs are also incentivizing companies to manufacture goods on U.S. soil. Many American companies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into opening previously closed factories in the U.S. and constructing new facilities to begin manufacturing. Apple is even constructing a factory in the United States and they haven’t made anything in the United States since 2004 when their last American manufacturing line shut down. According to a study by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, an estimated one million manufacturing jobs could be created by 2025 due to the low energy costs of shale gas.

Beyond economic benefits, energy independence would also mean a change in our attitude overseas.

“I have no doubt that it will strengthen the independence so to speak of the U.S. when it comes to its foreign policy,” says Jeppe Kofod, a member of the European Parliament and representative from Denmark to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

Many of the same geographic areas that the oil companies are drawing resources from overlap with zones where the U.S. Military is also operating. According to NATO, roughly two hundred billion dollars of the United States military spending is linked to American efforts to protect oil interest. Some analysts point out that if the U.S. government had no conflict of interest within these areas, our foreign policy would be much more flexible. We could operate without having to worry about the energy impact back home. For example, if Saudi Arabia slows oil production in response to the U.S. interfering with Sunni interests in the Middle East, the pressure on the U.S. economy would be much more manageable.

When we talk about energy independence, it is impossible to ignore renewable energy sources. Renewable energy sources would also help us move towards independence without the risks associated with fracking. Renewable energy sources have their own issues too, however.

One issue with implementing renewable sources of energy is the amount of land they need. Because cities require a large amount of power in a densely populated area, power plants need to be able to produce energy consistently without taking up too much space. Solar farms need roughly 25 acres of land for every five megawatts of installation, and a city needs hundreds of megawatts. On the other hand a gas or coal powered plant works just fine, as it can be located within the city limits and its energy-producing units take up a fraction of the space. Bad weather can also nullify a solar farm’s only source of production, making it less viable in many areas.

Fracking and oil shale will be an issue for decades to come. It is easy for us to see the process of hydraulic fracturing and immediately decry it as harmful to the environment. This is an issue, and we really ought to regulate and manage the environmental impact of this process, but fracking should not be condemned without due process. If we compare the environmental impact with what we stand to gain from hydraulic fracturing, do the cons really outweigh the pros? Energy independence is a goal that has been pursued in the U.S. for decades, and with the finish line in sight we should think twice before denouncing fracking.

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