Photograph by Eugene Richards
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Natural gas flared as waste is a new sight on the Dakota prairie, where fracking—a way of extracting hard-to-reach oil—and directional drilling have sparked a boom.
Photograph by Eugene Richards

How Has Fracking Changed Our Future?

Will environmental damage from fracking natural gas will outweigh the gains from using a fuel that is cleaner than oil or coal?

The use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas from the earth dates back to the 1940s, but only in the past few years has "fracking" become an energy buzzword, alluding primarily to the shale gas boom in the United States and all of the controversy that has accompanied it. Fracking-the high-pressure injection of water, chemicals and sand into shale deposits to release the gas and oil trapped within the rock-in recent years has been combined with horizontal drilling and other improvements in technology to harvest stores of gas and oil that previously were thought commercially unfeasible to access. (See interactive: "Breaking Fuel from the Rock")

The implications of this sea change are debatable, but the impact is undeniable. In the United States, oil production last year reached its highest level in 14 years, thanks in part to output from North Dakota's Bakken Shale, and is expected to keep rising. Natural gas production, already at new highs thanks to shale gas, is expected to grow 44 percent in the U.S. between 2011 and 2040. (See "Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees U.S. Future Shaped by Fracking.")

Now countries around the world, including China, the United Kingdom and South Africa, are eyeing shale development as the potential key to unlock a similar windfall of homegrown energy. Debate rages on about whether these worldwide reserves can be tapped safely, and whether environmental damage from fracking natural gas will outweigh the gains from using a fuel that is cleaner than oil or coal, but remains a fossil fuel nonetheless. A few viewpoints on both sides of the issue follow.

Positive impacts of fracking

"The United States is in the midst of the 'unconventional revolution in oil and gas' that, it becomes increasingly apparent, goes beyond energy itself. Today, the industry supports 1.7m jobs - a considerable accomplishment given the relative newness of the technology. That number could rise to 3 million by 2020. In 2012, this revolution added $62 billion to federal and state government revenues, a number that we project could rise to about $113 billion by 2020.2 It is helping to stimulate a manufacturing renaissance in the United States, improving the competitive position of the United States in the global economy, and beginning to affect global geopolitics." —Daniel Yergin, vice chair of global consulting firm IHS, in February testimony before Congress

"Natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction imported oil. It is a bridge fuel to slash our oil dependence while buying us time to develop new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil transportation fuels. Natural gas is the critical puzzle piece RIGHT NOW. It will help us to keep more of the $350 to $450 billion we spend on imported oil every year at home, where it can power our economy and pay for our investments in a smart grid, wind and solar energy, and increased energy efficiency. By investing in alternative energies while utilizing natural gas for transportation and energy generation, America can decrease its dependence on OPEC oil, develop the cutting-edge know-how to make wind and solar technology viable, and keep more money at home to pay for the whole thing." —Pickens Plan, a site outlining BP Capital founder T. Boone Pickens' proposed energy strategy

"My town was dying. This is a full-scale mining operation, and I'm all for it. Now we can get back to work." —Brent Sanford, mayor of Watford City, a town at the center of the North Dakota oil boom, in "The New Oil Landscape" (NGM March 2013 issue)

Negative impacts of fracking

"According to a number of studies and publications GAO reviewed, shale oil and gas development poses risks to air quality, generally as the result of (1) engine exhaust from increased truck traffic, (2) emissions from diesel-powered pumps used to power equipment, (3) gas that is flared (burned) or vented (released directly into the atmosphere) for operational reasons, and (4) unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment or impoundment-temporary storage areas. Similarly, a number of studies and publications GAO reviewed indicate that shale oil and gas development poses risks to water quality from contamination of surface water and groundwater as a result of erosion from ground disturbances, spills and releases of chemicals and other fluids, or underground migration of gases and chemicals."—General Accounting Office report on shale development, September 2012

"The gas 'revolution' has important implications for the direction and intensity of national efforts to develop and deploy low-emission technologies, like [carbon capture and storage] for coal and gas. With nothing more than regulatory policies of the type and stringency simulated here there is no market for these technologies, and the shale gas reduces interest even further. Under more stringent GHG targets these technologies are needed, but the shale gas delays their market role by up to two decades. Thus in the shale boom there is the risk of stunting these programs altogether. While taking advantage of this gift in the short run, treating gas a 'bridge' to a low-carbon future, it is crucial not to allow the greater ease of the near-term task to erode efforts to prepare a landing at the other end of the bridge."—from a study on shale gas and U.S. energy policy by researchers at MIT (also see: "Shale Gas: A Boon That Could Stunt Alternatives, Study Says")

"Oil is a rental business. ...When the industry goes south, and it will go south, they just walk away." —Dan Kalil, charman of the Williams County Board of Commissioners in North Dakota, in "The New Oil Landscape" (NGM March 2013 issue)