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Thursday, September 18, 2014

What are the environmental costs and benefits of fracking?

To try to answer that question, an impressive array of researchers have synthesized 165 academic studies and government databases, covering greenhouse gas impacts, local air pollution, earthquakes, and water. They found a decidedly mixed bag.

The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking was published in Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Its abstract says that: 

Unconventional oil and natural gas extraction enabled by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is driving an economic boom, with consequences described from “revolutionary” to “disastrous.” Reality lies somewhere in between.
Unconventional energy generates income and, done well, can reduce air pollution and even water use compared with other fossil fuels. Alternatively, it could slow the adoption of renewables and, done poorly, release toxic chemicals into water and air.
Primary threats to water resources include surface spills, wastewater disposal, and drinking-water contamination through poor well integrity. An increase in volatile organic compounds and air toxics locally are potential health threats, but the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation will reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and particulate air pollution.
Data gaps are particularly evident for human health studies, for the question of whether natural gas will displace coal compared with renewables, and for decadal-scale legacy issues of well leakage and plugging and abandonment practices.
Critical topics for future research include data for:
  • estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) of unconventional hydrocarbons
  • the potential for further reductions of water requirements and chemical toxicity 
  • whether unconventional resource development alters the frequency of well integrity failures
  • potential contamination of surface and ground waters from drilling and spills
  • factors that could cause wastewater injection to generate large earthquakes, and
  • the consequences of greenhouse gases and air pollution on ecosystems and human health.
The researchers offer five principles for helping to reduce the environmental footprint of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional energy extraction which should be very familiar to readers of this blog:
  1. Greater transparency from companies and regulating agencies, and phasing out the use of toxic chemicals entirely.
  2. Fill the research gaps on the potential effects of unconventional energy extraction on human health
  3. Perform baseline studies prior to drilling, including measurements of groundwater and surface-water attributes, air quality, human health, and social impacts.
  4. Focus on surface and near-surface activities - rather than on what occurs deep underground - with best management practices or regulations, with increased attention to improving well integrity, and to potential interactions between hydraulic fracturing and abandoned wells.
  5. Invest in legacy funds to deal with inevitable future environmental problems. The researchers highlight Pennsylvania’s anemic “impact fee.”
This latest report is similar in tone and content to reports from Canada and the EU. They all contain essential wisdom. Will they be heeded?

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