The energy needs of the United States and elsewhere are only growing each year, but this needs often directly conflict with Americans' desire to live in clean, safe environments. This has led to the controversy surrounding the practice of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."
Solar and wind power, growing consumer markets as they are, cannot provide for increasing energy demand alone. Oil and gas are still vital parts of the American energy landscape. Originally, fracking was applauded for heralding the dawn of a new American energy revolution, and in recent years, it has become a magnet for domestic investment.
While there are many good things to be said about fracking technology and the benefits it has brought to the U.S. economy, the costs of fracking outweigh the benefits.
Let's take stock of the benefits first. Fracking has led to a cleaner energy environment in states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia which used to rely heavily on coal power. Jobs in the energy industry were relatively plentiful in the sluggish years after the 2007-2009 recession due to the growth of fracking, and the American natural gas industry has arguably played a large role in the low gas prices American consumers have been experiencing since 2014, The Daily Caller notes.
But there are dark sides to fracking, which span from the financial model used by fracking companies to the public health risks caused by the activity.
Hydraulic fracturing technologies have been explored in the U.S. since the late 19th century. Conventional oil drilling typically makes use of a small number of highly productive wells in which the oil under the ground may be difficult to locate, but will flow naturally.
Fracking essentially breaks up rock formations containing oil underground, allowing the oil to flow into the well for extraction. The high price of oil in the wake of the 2008 crisis made fracking technology an attractive investment compared to conventional drilling.
But other countries, namely Saudi Arabia, refused to cut oil production and instead decided to flood the market with oil in order to drive U.S. companies out of business, FiveThirtyEight noted. Fracking companies' finances have come under severe strain due to these efforts and collapsed in many areas of the U.S. and Canada. The oil boom in places like Alberta and North Dakota has largely ended. And while fracking was responsible for job creation, its role has been exaggerated: Data from one of the largest shale fields in the U.S. shows that fracking created just four jobs per well on average, according to The Independent.
Of course, fracking's economic downturn could eventually reverse if Saudi Arabia ever decides to limit oil production (or goes broke before U.S. companies buckle under the pressure), but the genie is mostly out of the bottle at this point. The competitiveness of American fracking companies led to these companies becoming victims of their own success, and Iran's entry into the world market seems likely to negatively impact oil prices even further.
However, it is the negative health and environmental effects of fracking which are the biggest strikes against the activity.
Two states, Vermont and New York, have already banned fracking on public health grounds. The data shows that people who live in the vicinity of a fracking well tend to show both short and long-term health effects due to their proximity to the wells. Nosebleeds, burning eyes and throat, respiratory issues, and increased risk of cancer are some of the costs faced by individuals in communities where fracking goes on, as a letter to The New York Times points out.
And one cannot ignore the widespread methane leaks that can occur in fracking wells -- a reality that effectively negates any of fracking's environmental benefits. Methane is an even more serious pollutant than excessive carbon dioxide, and in 2015, a natural gas storage facility in southern California suffered from a months-long methane leak, Scientific American reported. This incident was an environmental disaster, and its negative impacts will manifest themselves in affected communities for a long time.
Until the fracking industry that its procedures and chemicals do not disrupt the local environment -- so that, for example, residents are able to drink and use tap water without worrying about dangerous chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde showing up -- more states should take the lead of New York and Vermont.
In the meantime, other avenues to meet the U.S.'s energy needs should be explored. It's clear that future generations will most likely need to use a variety of energy sources to meet the country's demand, so the U.S. should consider investing in new designs for nuclear power generation as well as hydro power.
We should not look to fracking as the absolute way to meet our future energy demands; we should be shifting away from it.