Economist Debates: Fracking: Guest-Josh Fox

Economist Debates: Fracking: Guest.

Josh Fox
Featured guest
Josh Fox  

Do the benefits of shale gas outweigh the drawbacks? I think that “benefits” and “drawbacks” are the wrong terms. I would question the idea that there are any benefits to be had at all, and I think using the word “drawbacks” to describe the absolute horror that results from shale-gas development is an understatement indeed. Be that as it may, let’s assess. The gas industry has argued that the benefits include: cheap energy; energy independence for America and parts of Europe; better implications for climate change than coal; jobs. The opposition argues that the drawbacks are: a vast fossil-fuel development that will push us to the brink of runaway climate change; permanent and widespread water contamination; a huge upswing in air pollution; a burgeoning public-health crisis; the destruction of the national landscape; damage to democratic institutions through billions spent in lobbying; and, of the utmost importance, delaying the global transition to the renewable energy sources that are available right now and are fully capable of providing truly clean energy forever. Regarding the benefits, it is clear that each of the goals that the gas industry puts forward can be achieved in other, better ways. However, there are no substitutes for the things that will be damaged by the drawbacks. There is no other planet we can inhabit if we tank the climate. Rising sea levels, increased drought, massive floods and brushfires—all of which we are witnessing right now—will increase to a point where we will have created a situation that reduces civilisation to permanent emergency management.

I guess one could say that there are initial benefits to burning your furniture to heat your house. For a short while you save money on other fuels and you heat your home. However, the long-term “drawbacks” are that you have a very uncomfortable house once you’ve finished with your supply. You‘ve been so busy chopping up the sofa, your grandmother’s picture frames and your children’s toys that you haven’t developed an alternative strategy to heat your home for the future. If your sofa is, say, the national forest or the Delaware River Basin or the Rockies, and your grandmother’s picture frames are your democracy, and your children’s toys are clean water and air, that’s a bad house to live in.

1. Shale gas is the worst form of fuel that can be developed with respect to greenhouse-gas emissions in the short term 

Estimates vary but it is clear that between 4% and 9% of methane—enormous quantities of methane—from fracking escapes into the atmosphere. Methane is 105 times more potent at trapping heat than CO2 in the 20-year time frame. Combine this with the CO2 generated from burning the gas itself, and you get emissions higher than any other fossil fuel over a 20-year time frame. A conversion to shale gas means accelerating global climate change, not slowing it down.

2. Water contamination: leakage is not rare, it is rampant

For a video explication of this issue, please take a look at my short film, “The Sky is Pink“.

We’ve heard time again that strict regulation is the key to moving forward on fracking and that new regulations will ensure that the industry constructs leak-proof wells. There is no such thing as a leak-proof gas well. The gas industry knows this; in fact, it has known it for decades.

The part of the gas well that it is relying on to protect groundwater is simply cement; a 1-inch thick layer between the steel casing and the surrounding rock. When the cement fails, it opens a pathway for gas and other toxins involved in the drilling and fracking process to migrate into groundwater and to the surface.

The gas industry’s own documents and case studies show that about 6% of cement jobs fail immediately upon installation. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection bears this out: it found 6.2% of new gas wells were leaking in 2010, 6.2% in 2011 and 7.2% in 2012.

The gas industry has been studying the problem for decades, and knows it full well. In a report entitled “Well Integrity Failure Presentation”, Archer, a drilling service company, reports that nearly 20% of all oil and gas wells are leaking worldwide. A 2003 joint industry publication from Schlumberger, the world’s number one fracking company, and ConocoPhillips, an oil and gas giant, cites astronomical failure rates of 60% over a 30-year span.

3. Air pollution

In 2009, the 7,700 frack sites in the Dallas, TX, metro area (there are now more than 15,000) were pumping out the equivalent smog and CO2 emissions of all traffic in the entire Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex combined. In Pennsylvania, the industry goal is 100,000-200,000 frack sites, or another 10-20 DFW’s worth of emissions, in one state alone. Crazy.

4. Land destruction is ongoing, including public treasures

Large swathes of public parklands and forests have been handed over for drilling, creating unprecedented destruction of plants, animals, habitats and natural beauty. We estimate that the “shale gas revolution”, if fully pursued, will result in 1m-2m new wells in America alone. That is one well, at the high end, per 150 people. I hate to say something so simple, but that’s just insane.

5. A health crisis

There is a burgeoning health crisis related to chemical and hydrocarbon exposure in residential areas and chronic exposure to hazardous air pollution from drilling. Volatile organic compounds released on the sites include cancer-causing benzene and other carcinogens. Ailments from asthma to cancer to neurological disorders have been reported both anecdotally and in initial public health assessments (see Colorado School of Public Health’s HIA 2010).

6. Democracy and your voice are at risk

Oil and gas companies spent $747m lobbying congress to be exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Their lobbying expenditures and contributions in election cycles of hundreds of millions more mean that the fossil-fuel industries are literally spending billions of dollars to corrupt our democracy. Citizens don’t often have billions of dollars to speak for them. 

So on to the so-called “benefits”.

1. Jobs

Barack Obama famously touted that there are 600,000 jobs to be had in the fracking industry by the end of the decade. But his former “Green Jobs Czar”, Anthony Van Jones, was quick to point out that the Brookings Institute (not some left-wing think-tank) stated there are vastly more green jobs to be cultivated right now—millions more. If we move towards shale gas full tilt, we will stall the drive to truly clean energy and the long-term jobs it will provide. Should we sell out a true new jobs market for a shrinking pot of jobs in the polycarbon industry?

2. Energy independence

True energy independence does not mean continuing to be dependent on multinational fossil-fuel giants. Renewable energy provides true independence from our fossil-fuel-addicted past. (See Mark Jacobson’slandmark article on the front page of Scientific American, which outlines how renewables can run the planet.) 

3. Cheap energy

Considering all the real costs, fracking for shale gas cannot be considered cheap. The industry externalises the real cost onto the landscape, our water and air and the citizenry. For example, in Dimock, PA, the cost of a water line to replace water contaminated by drilling for just 18 families was $12m. Multiply these figures by millions of wells and the damage is in the trillions in just the Marcellus Shale alone.


So what is this really? The last gasp of the fossil-fuel era, an attempt to keep us addicted to poisonous fuels when the real clean green economy is waiting for democracy to reassert itself. Shale gas is long-term ruin for the many at the expense of short-term gain for the few.

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