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Op-Ed: Once fracking commences, is there any going back?

By Leigh Goessl     Jan 9, 2013 in Environment
The battle over whether or not hydraulic fracturing is a beneficial way to access natural gas trapped beneath the Earth's surface is ongoing. The issue is a divisive one that pits fuel and jobs needs vs. environmental and health ones.
Hydraulic fracturing, or often referred to as "fracking", is a controversial topic across the globe. Fracking is a process of extracting energy sources from beneath the ground; it involves injecting high-pressurized water, sand and a mixture of chemicals under the surface to aid in breaking through shale to release oil and gas trapped inside.
Currently, the divisive issue has come to the forefront in the U.S. and across the pond in the U.K. Proponents of the practice typically cite fuel needs and filling jobs while opponents focus on health and environmental issues.
Is fracking safe?
New York has had an ongoing discussion over whether or not fracking will be allowed to commence in the state. A decision was recently delayed pending more information from studies and analysis on the process.
Schematic cross-section of the subsurface illustrating types of natural gas deposits.  Fracking is u...
Schematic cross-section of the subsurface illustrating types of natural gas deposits. Fracking is used to extract shale gas.
US Energy Information Administration
Proponents of fracking stand by the process, and a recent analysis conducted by a New York agency reportedly says it is safe. According to the New York Times, an eight page analysis takes into account previous research by the state and other groups and concludes fracking can be safely done in N.Y.
At this time the report has not been publicly released, the NYT notes it received the copy of the report "from an expert who did not believe it should be kept secret". Reuters has also reported on the analysis, indicating the experts involved are concluding the practice is safe as long as proper safeguards are in place.
“By implementing the proposed mitigation measures,” the analysis says, “the Department expects that human chemical exposures during normal HVHF operations” — short for high-volume hydraulic fracturing — “will be prevented or reduced below levels of significant health concern.”
Or is it?
Opponents of fracking maintain that the potential cost of the extracting process is too high. There have been speculations that hydraulic fracturing creates earthquakes, increases smog levels, pollutes water supplies and contaminates the environment.
Digital Journal reported in Aug. 2012 on a fracking incident that occurred in Pennsylvania and local water supplies were contaminated.
Also, according to the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Michigan, an "average of 5 million gallons of water are used to fracture each [Michigan] well". That is a lot of water. With water being such a precious resource, fracking appears to not only use up excessive amounts of water, but if it ends up contaminating other water supplies, then what? We'll have natural gas, but will its price be water?
What about regulation?
According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) companies performing the fracking do not have to abide by the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Why is that?
Additionally, the companies involved reportedly do not have to disclose what chemicals are included in the cocktail mix that is injected into the ground since it is considered trade secret and proprietary.
Future of fracking
Currently, a major study on hydraulic fracturing is being conducted in the U.S.
The Associated Press (via the Wall Street Journal) recently reported on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) study that has gotten "tentative praise" from both industry and environmental groups.
A 275-page progress report was released last month, and while the preliminary report addresses water contamination, it did not address "how often" pollution of drinking water may occur.
"In its inability to find a single company willing to test water quality before and after drilling and fracking, the EPA is being thwarted in perhaps the most important part of its study of fracking's impacts," Earthworks said in a statement. However, media reports said the agency does overall see the EPA's report as a positive step.
The EPA's final report won't be complete until late 2014.
The reality of it is, we don't know the long-term impact of fracking, so it leads to the question of whether or not it should be able to continue? Does it create jobs, build up local economies and provide energy? Indeed. However, if water supplies are harmed, people get sick and the practice has a negative impact on the environment, is it worth the cost to those communities? With every benefit there is a tradeoff, but how high are we willing to go?
There is no simple solution for solving energy supply problems as it is a complex issue, however, it is vital that all involved look at the full picture and cover all angles because there is no going back. If due to fracking, people get sick/die, water is polluted, earthquakes are caused or the environment destroyed, while jobs may have been created and energy supplies satisfied, the cost might just be too high.
Shale plays in the United States for fracking.
Shale plays in the United States for fracking.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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