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Fracking – Bridge To The Future Or To Nowhere?

Susy Morris
Flickr Creative Commons

People are happy at the pump these days in Ohio.  Right now gasoline costs well below $3.00 per gallon. Heating with natural gas has gotten cheaper over the past few years.    Both of these trends have to do with fracking.  University of Dayton Professor Bob Brecha has some thoughts about the long-term costs and benefits of going after increasingly difficult fossil fuel deposits.

We are living in confusing times.  A few years ago, oil and natural gas prices were spiking, imports of oil kept increasing, and the US was trying to figure out how to get more natural gas from Canada and Mexico.  Now the US is about to overtake Saudi Arabia in oil production, Russia in gas production, and that we should get ready for a switch to natural gas use in trucking, electricity generation and more.  The question is, “How long can this last?”

By now everyone knows that the magic word is fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.  Conventional crude oil and gas that we were used to extracting was formed under great heat and pressure millions of years ago in what are called source rocks.  The oil and gas then had plenty of time to migrate out of these formations,  and gather in accessible deposits.  There it sat securely until the 19th century when we started tapping into it – it was the time of the gushers.  As these sweet spots became more scarce, petroleum engineers became more inventive, and discovered how to tap into oil and gas that had never made it out of the source rock.  To do so required drilling deep into the earth, then sideways along the relatively thin layers of shale, and finally, to create explosions underground with high pressure liquid to free up the oil and gas and make it flow to the surface. 

A lot of people are celebrating fracking - technical ingenuity helping secure energy resources for the future.  But, I see several reasons to be concerned.  First, even when the fracking process is done carefully, burning natural gas releases carbon dioxide, continuing the contribution to climate change; if the gas leaks in the process of drilling, it is even worse for the environment.   

Although drilling through the water table to get to the oil and gas can be done safely, it would only take one accident to ruin a water supply forever.  Also, oil and gas are finite resources, and recent reports by the International Energy Agency and from researchers at the University of Texas warn that the current boom will only last a decade or two.  Finally, the liquids used for fracking also return to the surface and must be either re-used or disposed of.  Disposal usually means injecting the liquids underground; it has been clearly shown that this practice led to a series of earthquakes near Youngstown three years ago, and Oklahoma has seen a forty-fold increase in earthquakes in recent years.

The rapid growth in fracking has led to a temporary glut in the U.S., which has driven prices down.  We may like that when we go to fill, but producers are sweating because it’s not clear how they can make enough money to cover their costs. 

Some people believe that shale gas and oil represent a bridge to a future energy system, one with more renewable energy.  But renewables are ready now.  And with climate change looming in the background, the risks of fracking should inspire us to reduce consumption of fossil fuels rather than desperately looking for more.  The whole fossil fuel game is  less of a bridge to anywhere than it is a dead-end street.

Bob Brecha is a professor of the renewable and clean energy program at the University of Dayton.