What has created high-paying blue-collar jobs, reduced America's trade deficit and greenhouse gas emissions, and cut Americans' energy bills (also further boosting the economy)? FRACKING!

Many of you will have read the title to this post and thought "sacrilege!" Fracking is an emotional topic just about anywhere that it is performed or contemplated. Countries like France and Bulgaria have at least temporarily banned the practice, while Luxembourg has failed to vote to allow it. Even in countries where it is not illegal, like Britain, it is distrusted and moves ahead only slowly.

There is certainly reason to be concerned. Companies that frack can rightly claim that there is no evidence of fracking ever contaminating a drinking water well, but they rely on a few tricks to make that assertion. The first trick is semantic: Contamination from oil or gas extraction can occur in many ways. The hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that cracks open the shale formations to release gas and oil is just one small part of the process and it is true that there is no evidence that this, by itself, has ever caused contamination (nor, as geologists point out, is it likely to). But who cares? The process of bringing it to the surface through supposedly hermetically sealed pipes that run through levels of rock that contain drinking water is an obvious concern. If contamination occurred at that stage, it wouldn't technically be due to fracking, but again... who cares? Finally, there have been confirmed cases of contamination from the ponds used to store waste water from the fracking process until it can be disposed of. Those ponds are often open and can overflow in a rain storm, causing toxic substances to leach into the soil and groundwater. Regulation of the ponds, the seals, and the chemicals used in fracking varies widely and is not based on solid study, all of which should be deeply disturbing to anyone interested in the safety of drinking water and the preservation of the environment or even just their crop fields.

That said, the other side of the debate is also guilty of twisting the facts to suit their own ideological desires. Many environmentalists point to the massive use of water (up to 7 million gallons for a single well) to frack wells. That sounds mind-boggling, but put it into context: "Of the [9,500 million] gallons of water used daily in Pennsylvania, natural gas development consumes 1.9 million gallons a day (mgd); livestock use 62 mgd; mining, 96 mgd; and industry, 770 mgd."1 In other words, fracking uses just 3% of the water used by agriculture in that state and just 0.2% of the water used by other industries. Granted, in a place plagued by drought (like Texas), this can still make a huge difference, but it is often blown out of proportion. Conventional oil fields also often require water to be pumped into them to maintain pressure and push oil out, so this is not something entirely new to fracking. Another claim is about contamination of drinking water. As noted above, some contamination has occurred from the above-ground pools used to store drilling waste. What's more, it seems gas has occasionally leaked upwards along improperly sealed pipes and into groundwater. The problem is, drinking water wells have more often been contaminated due to naturally-occurring gas deposits than from natural gas drilling. One study found levels of methane in groundwater in fracking areas to be close to background levels published previously by the US Geological Survey (i.e. the methane was there already). Another study notes levels were higher near fracking wells--but I'd point out that you'd also likely drill wells where you'd have more gas to find, so there may be a chicken-and-egg problem here. It should also be pointed out that fracking is not actually new, it's been done since the 1950s with little opposition.

After all that back-and-forth, your conclusion ought to be "mixed bag," and you might thus say "better safe than sorry." I agree with that to a point, but since fracking has been done safely for ages, many of the claims of the dangers are unfounded or confirmed only rarely, and because cases in which contamination occurred have seemingly always resulted from lax safety regimes, on balance I'd say: tighten up the rules, enforce them strictly, and move forward with fracking. Why? Because there's more to this debate than whether groundwater has been contaminated or not (or whether air pollution from it is dangerous, etc. etc.).

As my title suggests, there are massive benefits! By 2020, it is estimated that the American fracking boom will have generated 1.7 million jobs--"far more than the car industry provides." And these are the types of jobs that have been disappearing since the 1960s: They don't require a lot of skill or education, but they can lift those doing them solidly into the middle class. It's a force against the "hollowing out" of the American economy, whereby those in the middle class are either having to find some way to move up the income ladder--or accept sliding down it. Another benefit is to America's trade balance. America has run a trade deficit (importing more than it exports) since the 1970s (with just one exception). If you spend more money than you earn, you have to borrow the difference. The US has done just that for all that time. Its government is in hock to China and Japan, but the private sector has also seen foreign banks lending domestic banks money, which eventually has to be repaid. Many mortgages are held by banks in Germany, for example. This cannot continue forever (and was one big factor in the 2008-9 financial crisis). America either needs to import less or export more. Shale gas and oil found domestically mean the US can import less of both and export more, so the US could even start paying down its debts without having to spend less on other things (it's like a get-out-of-jail-free card).2 We should not underestimate this benefit. It could potentially mean lower borrowing costs (cheaper loans to homeowners, businesses, students) coupled with lower energy prices (saving people money) and more (and higher paying) jobs. It's a big deal.

Next, there are the environmental benefits. If fracking can be done safely, its ecological ledger could be on the positive side. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, both in terms of CO2 emissions and in terms of other forms of air pollution from coal (like particulates and sulfur oxides). US greenhouse gas emissions have already fallen by 300 million tons since 2000 (without even really trying--we didn't sign up to Kyoto, after all), and the pace looks to be quickening. Some of that is due to the recession, but some is due to natural gas replacing coal for electricity generation. Coupled with the benefits of lower energy bills, less foreign borrowing, more high-paying blue-collar jobs, and less American money going to unsavory regimes throughout the world in exchange for their oil (a point I haven't really made here but one that is highly significant if you're interested in how American foreign policy shapes the world), and fracking, carefully regulated, can be a very, very good thing.

1. McGraw, Seamus. “Is Fracking Safe? The Top 10 Myths About Natural Gas Drilling.” Popular Mechanics, February 2, 2012. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/coal-oil-gas/top-10-myths-about-natural-gas-drilling-6386593#slide-2.
2. I should note here that Americans might continue to borrow just as much abroad because they feel richer and foreigners continue to like investing (lending) in America. It's a complicated equation and is not only under Americans' control.


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