The Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing

With each new generation that comes of age, new issues – whether they are political, economic or otherwise – come to the forefront of people’s conversations. With the looming threat of diminished resources and the hazardous effects of climate change, the millennial generation has overwhelmingly decided to prioritize environmental issues and what can be done to prevent future generations from running out of vital resources.

One of the many environmental issues embraced by this generation, is the development of alternative energy sources in lieu of using natural gas; a finite resource that could potentially be further diminished if alternatives aren’t found. In the current state of the world, humans rely heavily on natural gas to power everything from cars to kitchen appliances. According to a 2010 study conducted by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), approximately 81 percent of global primary energy use came from fossil fuels. The use of natural gas, especially at the rate that it is currently used, can cause a considerable amount of damage to the Earth’s atmosphere, causing global temperatures to continue to rise.

Even with more environmental consciousness, the demand for natural gas has not subsided and with fewer resources at their disposal, those who work in the oil and gas industry seek out ways to keep up with the demand. One of the ways that these companies have been able to do this is through the use of hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking,” is a method for extracting oil and natural gas from rock formations beneath the earth’s surface. The process is fairly straightforward – wells are drilled as deep as a mile into the rock and once the well is constructed, a mixture of water, sand and a small number of chemicals are injected into the rock at a high pressure, which causes small fissures in the rock; allowing natural gas to flow into the well.

The practice of using hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas has come under intense scrutiny in recent years; with many citizens concerned about the potentially negative impact the process could have on the environment. Petitions to ban the use of fracking have appeared in many states and many politicians have weighed in on the issue. For example, former presidential candidate and Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders, has vehemently opposed the use of fracking for years.

“If we are serious about combating climate change, we need to put an end to fracking not only in New York and Vermont, but all over this country,” said Sanders at a New York rally for his presidential campaign earlier this year, according to an April 11, 2016 article by ABC News.

While a number of politicians and environmentalists echo his sentiments, others are not convinced that the environmental impact is as great as it is often made out to be.

“In Michigan, we’ve had about 12,000 wells hydraulically fractured … we have a long history of it,” said Hal Fitch of the Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “We’ve had about 80 high-volume fracking initiatives in the state of Michigan, and out of all of those, we’ve never had one case of environmental contamination from a fracking operation. The process itself has never caused direct contamination of water resources.”

On the contrary, Fitch noted that there were a number of benefits — many of them economic — to continuing the use of fracking, at least until another more sustainable energy resource is found to take its place.

“It’s got a number of benefits – it produces energy that’s in demand right now,” said Fitch. “The operations employ people locally, they also generate revenue – of course for the company – but also for the land owners … ultimately, we’ll have to move on to other sources of energy, but right now we don’t have any replacements for the fossil fuel energy sources that we have.”

Aside from creating profits for the oil and gas industry, hydraulic fracturing ultimately helps to support Michigan’s parks and recreational areas. Many of the oil and gas wells in Michigan are located on state-owned land, and the revenue generated from those wells goes into Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund. This funding supports the development and maintenance of recreational properties owned by the state. When that fund is capped out, the revenue is directed to an endowment fund that supports the state’s parks.

With that in mind, Fitch added that hydraulic fracturing isn’t always in the best interest of the state; when the price of oil and gas is down, the cost of initiating the process far outweighs the benefits.

Of course, there is the possibility that hydraulic fracturing might harm the surrounding environment, but Fitch stated that with proper regulations, the risk of contamination is small.

“There’s quite a bit of misinformation about fracking and its environmental impact, and that’s not to downplay it. If it’s not managed well, there is potential for problems,” said Fitch. “Awareness of the potential problems and proper management is important, but in Michigan, we feel we have a pretty good handle on any issues that could arise.”

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Alicia Pilmore

Alicia Pilmore

Alicia Pilmore is a communications specialist at M3 Group in Lansing, Michigan. She enjoys writing, wine tasting and spoiling her cat, Pishi.

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