Do the benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweigh the costs?
John H. Redpath
US Centre 601
April 11, 2014
After decades of trial and error, in 2001 George Mitchell, Chairman and CEO of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., cracked the code on what is today considered to be the new gold rush of the energy industry. By successfully commercializing hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett shale deposit, Mitchell ushered in a new opportunity for the United States to emerge as the largest natural gas producer in the world. Higher production of shale gas has reduced energy prices over the last five years and has increased U.S. energy self-sufficiency. Since it is viewed as a relatively clean form of hydrocarbon-based energy, natural gas is an excellent way for the U.S. to bridge itself from current reliance on non-renewable natural resources to sustainable forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar power.
The economic benefits of extracting shale gas with hydraulic fracturing are compelling. However, the environmental costs of the drilling are being heavily debated. The decisions made in the next few years by energy companies, state governments, the federal government and consumers will be critical for determining whether the U.S. will achieve its long term energy goals. Charles R. Morris is the author of Comeback: America’s New Economic Boom (2013) and eleven other business books. He won the Gerald Loeb Award, a recognition of excellence in journalism, especially in the fields of business, finance and the economy.1 Morris defines hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, as the process to extract gas from naturally occurring underground deposits of shale by injecting a mix of water and chemicals through directional drilling which forces open fissures in the rock and releases methane gas.2 In recent years, high production of shale gas and other unconventional hydrocarbons3 (oil sands, coal bed methane and oil shale) has allowed countries such as the U.S., Canada and Mexico to become leading energy producers and has enabled reduced dependency on oil imports from the Middle East and Russia, regions with divergent interests to the U.S. and its allies. For example, the International Energy Agency (an autonomous body of 28 countries within the Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development), reports that oil comprised 53% of the world’s energy supply in 1973 and by 2012 had declined by 17 percentage points to 36%.4 In the same time period, natural gas and nuclear energy increased from 19% to 26% and from 1% to 10%, respectively. However, unconventional hydrocarbons are still non-renewable resources. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a non-renewable resource as “any natural resource from the Earth that exists in limited supply and cannot be replaced if it is used up.” Examples of nonrenewable resources are oil, coal, and natural gas. So while we now have access to large supplies of new unconventional hydrocarbons, we must bear in mind that these are still non-renewable resources and therefore finite. Thus, during this period of self-sufficiency, the U.S. and other producers of unconventional hydrocarbons should also pursue new technologies for renewable energy in order to secure long-term energy security. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a renewable resource as one that is, “restored or replaced by natural processes,” for example wind and solar rays. Renewable resources are clean and natural ways to produce electrical power, but today they usually come at the cost of not being economically or power efficient. Today’s shale gas success story has its roots in the combined efforts of the U.S. government and energy companies, which, in the 1970s, performed research and developed shale gas extraction technologies through demonstration contracts.5 Also, U.S. shale formations are well known to industry since...
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