Big Fracking Deal

Editor's Note: CPR asked three student groups on campus to discuss the increasingly more visible practice of hydrofracking and its possible effects on the environment, the energy sector, and the American economy.

Delta GDP: Jacob Boeri

As it currently stands in the United States, hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) is unsustainable. It will have disastrous effects environmentally with extremely limited short-term economic gains. It is true that, if done correctly, hydrofracking could prove to be a short-term energy source with minimal environmental impact. But drilling companies' lack of adherence to regulations, coupled with the difficulty of enforcing such regulation, creates irreversible environmental degradation. According to economist Jannette Barth, federal and state regulators have identified over a hundred cases where hydrofracking is either the known or suspected cause of freshwater contamination. This contamination usually involves the release of extremely volatile chemicals and carcinogens into the local environment – polluting streams, rivers, and drinking water. In addition, the extraction and transportation of natural gas produces more greenhouse gases than the extraction and transportation of oil, undermining its position as a cleaner source of energy than petroleum.

The economic effects of hydrofracking have also come under question. Most recently, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has cut its estimates of the recoverable natural gas in US shale by half. Furthermore, this estimate represents the amount of theoretically recoverable natural gas – not the actual reserve amount, but the gas that is economically feasible to extract. This creates uncertainty as to how long the supply will last, lowering some analysts’ estimates from over a century to as low as one or two decades, and raising the question as to whether such a risk is worth this small gain.

Advocates of hydrofracking cite the hundreds of thousands of jobs that extraction of natural gas will supposedly create, but they fail to see the transience of this work – an aspect of the industry that is only compounded by the continually lowered projections of output. Additionally, the costs of switching vehicles, energy plants, or homes to use natural gas diminish the net economic gains.

Finally, hydrofracking perpetuates a fossil-fuel based system that will no longer be sustainable in the coming centuries. As with any other new energy source, huge government subsidies will be necessary to make the expenditure profitable, drawing upon resources that could be used to further more progressive energy projects. Hydrofracking will only serve to postpone development of domestic renewable energy sources and profit businesses that already have a stake in the continuance of environmental harm and unsustainable energy policies. The international community has already begun the processing of banning this harmful practice, with France and Bulgaria implementing total bans and several countries imposing moratoria until further research is conducted. In opposing hydrofracking, we not only stand against these wasteful subsidies, but also indirectly support the renewable energy sector and a future sustainable development initiative.


Columbia University College Republicans (CUCR): Jamie Boothe

The United States is currently experiencing a revolution in domestic energy. With the boom in domestic natural gas exploration and production, as well as the development of oil sands operations in our next-door ally Canada, independence from overseas oil is finally within our reach.

However, this increased interest in domestic energy is naturally not without some controversy. The growth of the natural gas industry has been driven by the extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing, which has been given the pejorative nickname “fracking.” The process, which involves the injection of a water and chemical mixture into rock strata to release trapped natural gas, has ignited concerns that public groundwater supplies will become chemically polluted.

This is a valid concern, and one that certainly needs to be monitored. State governments have a responsibility to work with the natural gas industry to ensure that fracking does not damage the environment or endanger public health. Considering how critical energy security is to this nation, it is imperative that both Republicans and Democrats work together to ensure that fracking can be conducted in a manner that is both responsible and productive, with the safety of the public always being the preeminent concern.

We at CUCR believe that energy progress will require an all-of-the-above approach, and importantly, an approach that does not seek to demonize the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry is an asset to this country both in terms of the affordable energy it provides and the jobs it supports; approaching the debate over fracking with the intention of seeking an outright ban on the technique will get us nowhere. Natural gas gives us a cheaper, cleaner, and domestically-produced energy alternative to petroleum that is actually feasible given current technology. It will serve as a stepping stone to further developments in carbon-free energy sources and it will finally allow the United States to cease placing the lifeblood of our national economy under the thumb of Middle Eastern dictatorships.

Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE): Andrea Collazo

Hydraulic fracturing is easily misconstrued as a necessary evil. While national demand for energy continues to skyrocket and traditional means for accessing limited natural resources prove insufficient, fracking presents a desperate but viable measure. This practice relies on simple technology that exploits natural gas deposits by splitting bedrock, as successful drilling contractors literally move fast and break things. But this simplistic philosophy is neither economically constructive nor environmentally sustainable.

In the Northeast, the fracking boom has benefitted some local business owners and has increased employment. It has also created a labor demand problem for established employers and economic dependence on energy companies in rural areas, as once the boom is over, many communities may return to a troubling economic reality. The potential for environmental harm is even more disturbing, as water contamination and noise pollution threaten both local wildlife and residential communities.

By investing in clean energy, the private sector has recognized the extraordinary potential of attractive alternatives: startups in green tech. These companies are already present in the portfolios of many prominent venture capital funds. The government can support the growth of this industry as well. Rather than simply banning fracking, it should continue to incentivize green technology and the clean tech movement. Existing tax credits and the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act allow ventures to materialize and grow. With continuing federal support, entrepreneurial endeavors for innovation in renewable energy can outpace archaic and environmentally destructive practices such as fracking.

Beyond policy, we should shift our focus from a boom industry that harnesses finite resources to a growing sector that is working to ensure future prospects. As a society that cares for sustainable development and the potential long-term consequences of current practices, we can do better, and the government should continue to support entrepreneurial endeavors that aim to do so.