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Counterpoint: The Case against Fracking

Recently, the Radar published an article by William P. called “The Case for Fracking.” It lays out the argument for fracking very clearly, and I recommend reading it. The article seems very convincing, but I’ve heard some negative things about fracking from sources I trust, so I decided to dig a little deeper to see if I had judged fracking too quickly. Unfortunately, what I found when I dug wasn’t oil, but rather that “The Case for Fracking” is riddled with omissions, overlooked impacts, and references to biased studies.

Let’s start where the article starts: with the economy. The first statistic in “The Case for Fracking” cites a press release describing a study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API). API is the oil and gas industry’s largest lobbying group. I would describe the conflict of interest there myself, but I think API does it better than I could: “API’s mission is… to influence public policy in support of a strong, viable U.S. oil and natural gas industry.” Next, the article cites the White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), which wrote a paper arguing that the fracking industry saves citizens’ money. While “White House Council of Economic Advisors” sounds very authoritative, it’s important to remember that the Council works directly for the President, and so they often act as a political mouthpiece for whoever holds office. For example, Trump’s CEA also wrote a 72-page report decrying the evils of socialism throughout history. Given the CEA’s political nature, what it reports about fracking could be influenced by the nearly $2 million Trump’s campaign has received from the oil and gas industry. 

Even if we ignore the bias in these sources, this economic argument fails to account for the fact that the US will continue to have a demand for energy without the oil and gas industry, and whatever energy industry replaces it will also provide jobs and contribute to the GDP. The article goes on to argue that that money will go to workers, infrastructure, schools, and roads, not oil tycoons. In fact, a lot of revenue from oil does go to CEOs of oil companies, some of whom make salaries in the tens of millions, while their workers earn hundreds of times less. Benefits created by taxes from the oil and gas industry are quickly dwarfed by the money it costs the government. Annually, the industry gets $20 billion in direct subsidies and a staggering $649 billion dollars in indirect subsidies. Indirect subsidies are costs the government pays to support the industry, such as guarding oil reserves with the US military, or make up for damages it causes.

The article’s second major point is that fracking is “our best option for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions” because fracking doesn’t produce as much carbon emission as coal does. The article links to eidclimate.org, a website run by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, another oil and gas industry lobbying group. While eidclimate.org in turn cites accurate data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it does so selectively, revealing only half the relevant information about the fracking industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So what is it that the oil and gas lobbying groups don’t want us to know? Carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas. Methane, a greenhouse gas with 86 times the warming power of CO2 over a period of 20 years, is one of the primary products of fracking. Fracking does create fewer carbon emissions than coal, but recent studies published in the respected journals Nature and Science have found that methane leaks in the gas pipelines from fracking sites are high enough to eliminate almost all of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that fracking provides over coal. Probably those methane leaks are actually underreported because the Trump administration has been cutting regulations of methane leaks and eliminating requirements for companies to detect these leaks since those studies were published.

The article quickly brushes off solar and wind energy because they can’t provide consistent energy in some regions, but neglects to mention other forms of energy that are consistent around the clock, such as nuclear and hydroelectric, both of which don’t burn fossil fuels. It also argues that we need fracking in order to be energy independent so other countries can’t use their oil as a bargaining chip, but as I just mentioned, it ignores that nuclear energy could also fill this role.

This article could end here. Having rebutted the major “cases” for fracking, I could easily end the article with “keep harmful fossil fuels in the ground and turn to alternative energy,” but this story is far from over. You don’t just hear demands to end fracking because it’s “not that much better than coal.” Fracking is not just dangerous because it’s a method of obtaining fossil fuel, but also because it hurts and destroys our local communities and environments.

I looked into the article’s final source, which it cited to claim that “only 2% of earthquakes are caused by fracking itself.” Surprisingly enough, this statistic is from a very reputable source that’s not affiliated with the oil and gas industry, the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Furthermore, it says almost exactly what is claimed in the article: “only 1-2% of the earthquakes [in Oklahoma] can be linked to hydraulic fracturing operations.” Then I read the next line and immediately realized there was something very fishy going on here: “the remaining earthquakes are caused by wastewater disposal.” Wait? What remaining earthquakes? It turns out that one of the byproducts of fracking is a huge amount of wastewater (roughly 10 barrels for every barrel of oil produced). In order to get rid of wastewater safely, fracking companies usually inject it at high pressure into wells, which is the part that causes the earthquakes. It’s worth mentioning that other oil and gas wells also produce wastewater, not just those at fracking sites. So, how many earthquakes? According to the USGS in 2012, roughly seven times more earthquakes (magnitude of 3 or higher) than before the fracking boom. In 2014, there were 688 earthquakes in the central U.S. For perspective, the average earthquakes per year in that region from 1973-2008 was 24. Since 2015, the number of induced earthquakes has decreased somewhat, but it’s still much higher than before the fracking boom, and while most of these earthquakes are relatively minor and don’t cause too much damage, some can be catastrophic, such as the 2016 Oklahoma earthquake, which is the largest earthquake in the state’s history.

According to the EPA, some of that wastewater can also sometimes get into drinking water. When that does happen, it’s a serious issue, because: “The radioactivity levels in produced waters from unconventional drilling can be significant and the volumes are large.” Another health concern with fracking is air pollution. Air pollution caused by fracking can cause a variety of health risks, but one especially tragic one is birth defects. Babies born near fracking sites have up to twice as many neural tube defects, 30% more congenital heart defects, and are up to 25% more likely to be born at a low birth weight depending on how many and how close the fracking wells are.

The problem at the core of “The Case for Fracking” isn’t bad-faith arguing by its author, nor inaccurate data, because it’s not guilty of those things. The problem is fracking. The oil and gas industry has embedded itself into nearly every corner of reporting and discussion on fracking, to the point where it’s hard to tell where the science ends and the lobbying groups begin. Every single article cited in “The Case for Fracking” that is actually in support of fracking is written by an organization that is funded by the oil and gas industry, and those sources repeatedly and strategically leave out information that doesn’t benefit their industry. Behind the many walls of corruption and corporate propaganda, fracking is a process that harms real people around it now, and continues to damage our planet’s climate. So, I end this article with the same question that opens “The Case for Fracking.” “How could anyone support a practice so destructive to the environment and public health?”

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