Pugwash: Hydraulic fracturing has both advantages and disadvantages

The topic of this week’s Pugwash discussion was hydraulic fracturing — more colloquially referred to as fracking. Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas out of shale rock in the ground. It has been in development for decades, but only reached technological maturity in the last five years. Since then, natural gas has rapidly replaced coal fire power plants across the United States, and has accounted for about 81 percent of the nation’s installed electricity capacity in the last decade, according to GRACE Communications Foundation.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to natural gas utilization. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the fuel from natural gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal for the same amount of energy when burned, and even smaller amounts of other dangerous chemicals. The fuel is also extremely economical; for example, an article in Forbes discussed how cheap natural gas led to a boom in the economy of North Dakota. To some, it is the only reasonable way of reducing emissions while maintaining a strong economy. On the other hand, fracking has led to fears of environmental destruction. Videos have appeared online demonstrating how groundwater contamination in the areas around hydraulic fracturing sites has lead to flammable tap water. Additionally, hydraulic fracturing involves catching the methane that escapes from shale rock. Any methane that escapes will leak into the atmosphere, and acts as a greenhouse gas about 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. Another concern is that fracking may simply be increasing our reliance on fossil fuels, making clean energy even less of a reality.

Following a general discussion of the pros and cons of fracking, the conversation turned to how these advantages and disadvantages compared to each other in weight. For example, the 2010 documentary Gasland was cited to explain that the most dangerous of the disadvantages to fracking is water contamination. However, it was noted that most policymakers consider the release of methane from fracking sites to be the biggest issue with fracking. If experts consider the methane emission to be worse than the ground water contamination, then we could have a catastrophe on our hands.

While it was pointed out that we cannot make the good the enemy of the perfect, and that fracking is at least preferable to coal in terms of environmental destruction, these points sparked a conversation about how we do not even consider renewables to be options, when, in fact, they are. A century ago, when the infrastructure of the first power plants were put in place, energy innovators did not consider the long-term effects of their decisions and assumed that environmental issues would be solved by now. This mistake is not one that can be made again. As we neglect to set up the infrastructure for renewable energy, we are making it more and more difficult for ourselves in the future to build newer, cleaner energy solutions. If we do not act now, we never will.

However, this urgency for renewable energy sources was subdued a little by a counterargument. It was clarified that when a resource becomes scarce, it will become expensive. Thus, it is in a profit-focused company’s best interest to invest in more nonrenewable energy sources, simply for their long-term economic survival. This point makes fracking seem more reasonable because companies can invest in it now, and then invest in renewable sources when they are inevitably forced to.

However, we should not consider corporations to be so focused on the long term; by the time these companies decide to change, it may be environmentally too late. These corporations may fail as energy resources are depleted and the world will be in trouble, but we should not wait for this scenario to happen: if they fail, the entire planet fails with them.