What’s the fracking problem with natural gas?

Photo: What's the fracking problem with natural gas?

It’s not unexpected that shooting massive amounts of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into the earth to shatter shale and release natural gas might shake things up. (Credit: Ari Moore via Flickr)

At least 38 earthquakes in Northeastern B.C. over the past few years were caused by hydraulic fracturing (commonly called fracking), according to a report by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. Studies have found quakes are common in many places where that natural gas extraction process is employed.

It’s not unexpected that shooting massive amounts of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into the earth to shatter shale and release natural gas might shake things up. But earthquakes aren’t the worst problem with fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing requires massive amounts of water. Disposing of the toxic wastewater, as well as accidental spills, can contaminate drinking water and harm human health. And pumping wastewater into the ground can further increase earthquake risk. Gas leakage also leads to problems, even causing tap water to become flammable! In some cases, flaming tap water is the result of methane leaks from fracking. And methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide!

Those are all serious cause for concern — but even they don’t pose the greatest threat from fracking. The biggest issue is that it’s just one more way to continue our destructive addiction to fossil fuels. As easily accessible oil, gas, and coal reserves become depleted, corporations have increasingly looked to “unconventional” sources, such as those in the tar sands or under deep water, or embedded in underground shale deposits.

And so we end up with catastrophes such as the spill — and deaths of 11 workers — from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. We turn a blind eye to the massive environmental devastation of the tar sands, including contamination of water, land, and air; destruction of the boreal forest; endangerment of animals such as caribou; and impacts on human health. We blast the tops off of mountains to get coal. We figure depleted water supplies, a few earthquakes, and poisoned water are the price we have to pay to maintain our fossil-fuelled way of life.

As Bill McKibben points out, it didn’t have to be this way. “We could, as a civilization, have taken that dwindling supply and rising price as a signal to convert to sun, wind, and other noncarbon forms of energy,” he wrote in the New York Times Review of Books, adding that “it would have made eminent sense, most of all because it would have aided in the fight against global warming, the most difficult challenge the planet faces.”

Some people, mostly from the fossil fuel industry, have argued that natural gas could be a “bridging” fuel while we work on expanding renewable energy development and capacity, by providing a source of energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions when burned than coal and oil.

But numerous studies, including one by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, have found this theory to be extremely problematic. To begin, leaks of natural gas — itself a powerful greenhouse gas — and the methane that is often buried with it, contribute to global warming. Burning natural gas and the industrial activity required to extract and transport it also contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions. As McKibben notes, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that switching to natural gas “would do little to help solve the climate problem.”

More than anything, continued and increasing investment in natural gas extraction and infrastructure will slow investment in, and transition to, renewable energy. Would companies that build gas-fired power plants be willing to shut them down, or pay the high cost of capturing and storing carbon, as the world gets serious about the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Just as fossil fuels from conventional sources are finite and are becoming depleted, those from difficult sources will also run out. If we put all our energy and resources into continued fossil fuel extraction, we will have lost an opportunity to have invested in renewable energy.

If we want to address global warming, along with the other environmental problems associated with our continued rush to burn our precious fossil fuels as quickly as possible, we must learn to use our resources more wisely, kick our addiction, and quickly start turning to sources of energy that have fewer negative impacts.