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The Fracking Debate: Environmental Destruction or a Way to Stop Global Warming?


Unlocking vast natural gas reserves through hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as fracking, is hailed as a solution to global warming and an economic boom for towns and cities that won the geographic lottery: a win-win in the eyes of the ruling class. But mounting scientific evidence indicates further development of natural gas will not solve global warming and actually delays badly needed investment in renewable technology. 

Fracking Boom: Coming to a Town Near You? 

Across America, small towns and farms sitting atop vast natural gas reserves are being leased or bought by gas companies looking to cash in on the fracking boom, brought on by new technology – fracking and horizontal drilling – that unlocks the hard-to-access natural gas. 

The process has been around for decades: Millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals are injected a mile or so below ground at extremely high pressure, causing the rock to fracture and release gas. But new regulations on coal burning plants and new horizontal drilling technology have recently made fracking profitable. Gas wells in the U.S. now number over half a million – up from around 340,000 in 2000 – with about 35 new wells constructed every day. 

The economic boom associated with gas drilling, driving unemployment rates as low as 3% in some areas (USA Today, 12/21/2012), has many unemployed or low-income people looking to the industry for jobs or to lease their land to find some economic relief. 

Frack! My Water is on Fire! 

Like the northern route of the Keystone XL pipeline, which risks contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer, much of the protest around fracking has been centered on protecting pristine water supplies. 

The 2010 documentary Gasland is famous for scenes showing methane-contaminated water catch fire. But only recently has scientific evidence conclusively shown that fracking can contaminate drinking water (Propublica, 7/9/2012), cause mini-earthquakes (Live Science, 8/6/2012), and allow methane (a more potent greenhouse gas) to escape into the atmosphere (Nature, 1/9/2013)

This evidence has led some countries and hundreds of American cities, municipalities, and towns to ban gas drilling, prompting gas companies to sue for lost profits (NY Times, 12/18/2012). New York placed a four-year moratorium on the practice in 2008 to allow time for a more comprehensive review of the health risks. Since around nine million New Yorkers draw fresh water from the Catskills, which rests directly above gas reserves, they are particularly worried about water contamination. 

Many pro-fracking groups point out that the risks can be mitigated or eliminated with better well construction, a point Obama has echoed (whitehouse.gov, 1/24/2012). However, even if fracking did not risk human and environmental health, it still requires millions of gallons of fresh water, up to four million gallons per well. Once used, the toxic wastewater is essentially impossible to sanitize and is typically stored underground. 

A Solution to Global Warming? 

After another year of extreme weather – a record heat wave in March, persistent droughts, weird storms we’ve never heard of (derechos), and Superstorm Sandy – nearly 70% of Americans now say that global warming is a problem, an increase of 22% in the last three years (Huffington Post, 11/9/2012). Arctic summer sea ice dropped to a new record low and 2012 was just reported as the hottest year on record in the U.S., beating the record set in 1998 by a whole degree Fahrenheit (NY Times, 1/8/2013)

Looking for ways to lower carbon emissions without disrupting economic growth, the ruling class has embraced natural gas. Burning natural gas to generate electricity produces roughly half the amount of carbon dioxide emissions as coal and virtually no particulates (which affect air quality). This fact led some environmental groups to initially welcome the fracking industry, forging an alliance with gas companies to combat the use of coal. For example, from 2007-2010 the Sierra Club accepted $26 million in contributions from gas companies (Washington Post, 2/19/12)

However, scientific studies have already indicated that switching from coal to natural gas will speed up global warming over the next century, not slow it down! (Science Daily, 9/8/2011). This is because burning coal produces sulfates and other particles, which act as sunlight reflectors and have a cooling effect, but natural gas is mostly comprised of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas. If 50% of global coal use were replaced with natural gas, with a 10% leakage rate of methane associated with extraction (already shown possible in a study published in Nature), climate models indicate global warming would not slow until 2140! 

Invest in Renewables 

It is clear that fracking should not be supported on the grounds that it lowers emissions or creates some jobs in the short term. Transitioning global society away from fossil fuels is urgently needed. Investing in natural gas delays this process by funneling desperately needed funding away from renewable energy projects. 

The technology necessary to transform global energy production from dirty fossil fuels to clean and renewable alternatives already exists (Scientific American, 2009). The barrier to this transition is not the lack of ideas or resources; rather, it is that big petroleum companies profit off the status quo. 

In the U.S. oil, gas, and coal companies receive roughly $13 billion a year in government subsidies (Bloomberg Businessweek, 12/3/2012), even though they are making record profits. Though the Obama administration is reversing the trend, spending more on renewable energy projects than fossil fuel projects in 2011 (Scientific American, 8/6/2012), it is not enough, especially since any further investment in oil, gas, and coal infrastructure is essentially a waste of resources. 

The U.S. should look to countries like Germany, where heavy investment – 20-30 billion euros annually – in renewable energy has increased the total amount of energy produced by renewables from 6.3% in 2000 to 25% in 2012 (Wall Street Journal, 11/29/2012)

Obama: Pro-Environment or Pro-Petroleum? 

Under Obama, domestic oil and gas production is up, the pristine Arctic is now open to drilling, and public land and water have been offered to private petroleum companies for profit. Obama even brags about his pro-fossil fuel record, saying, “we want U.S. oil companies to be doing well … That’s why … we’ve opened up millions of acres of federal lands and waters to oil and gas production” (whitehouse.gov, 3/29/12)

Though Obama has pushed through better regulation of coal-fired power plants – that is, requiring reductions in sulfur and mercury emissions – his attempt at increasing regulations on fracking was weakened soon after the industry complained. Instead of requiring companies to disclose the toxins before drilling, which would allow time for the necessary health and environmental impact studies, the new regulation allows them to wait until they are finished drilling, when adverse health and environmental impacts have already occurred (NY Times, 5/4/2012)

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, recently remarked that “[Obama] is now going for a full-throated endorsement of oil and natural gas production in the United States” (Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/21/2012)

Need for Political Independence 

We can’t afford to hope that Obama or any other big-business party will heavily invest in renewable energy when they are receiving millions in corporate cash committed to existing fossil fuel technologies. If we want the government to make the massive shift in policies needed to seriously address the sharply intensifying environmental crisis and provide jobs, we have to build a mass movement of millions of people. 

Rebuilding our economy around a massive green jobs program could meet the needs of both the environment and the unemployed. Record profits for big oil should be heavily taxed to pay for mass transit, high-speed rail, retrofitting buildings and homes for maximum energy efficiency, and a new electric grid. 

Challenging the power of Wall Street and Big Oil will require more than movements. Environmentalists should stop supporting the Democrats and instead run independent candidates that stand against fracking and call for serious action on global warming. 

The big oil, gas, and coal companies should be brought into public ownership and run democratically by the workers and working-class communities. There is no way, under the current economic system of capitalism, to incentivize these companies to stop extracting, refining, and burning fossil fuels. 

During the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the fracking boom occurring in rural America is ultimately the symptom of a decaying economic system that no longer meets the needs of humanity and is destroying our environment. With all the evidence staring them in the face, the ruling class refuses to give up their quest for profits. Ultimately, if we want to keep our resources safe and seriously tackle climate change, the global capitalist system must be overthrown and replaced with a system focused on the needs of humanity and the environment.
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Jessica Spear has worked as a research scientist in the field of paleoclimatology for the past 7 years.  She currently works as a micropaleontologist at the Burke Museum of Natural History and is an organizer with Socialist Alternative. 

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