Fracking, 10 years later: Its benefits far outweigh its risks

May 08, 2019

It has been 10 years since the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies reversed the United States’ position from that of energy scarcity to energy abundance. This has changed the economy for the long haul and in the process thrust the term “fracking” into the mainstream American lexicon.

During this time, “keep it in the ground” anti-fracking activists have desperately tried to diminish fracking’s many benefits by exploiting its clickbait-inducing moniker. They have claimed incessantly that the process causes just about every environmental and health calamity imaginable. Most recently, shale opponents have even tried to link fracking to depression, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases.

But amid muddied waters created by these unfounded and oftentimes ridiculous assertions, a sober evaluation of a decade’s worth of scientific data clearly reveals that fracking’s benefits have far outweighed its risks. And those risks have been routinely exaggerated or flat out made up by shale opponents.

The most obviously false claim has been that fracking makes climate change worse. To the contrary, a 2014 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment found that fracking is an “important reason for reduction of [greenhouse gas] emissions in the United States.”

Increased natural gas use, made possible by fracking and the resulting low prices, is the primary reason the United States has reduced carbon emissions by 13 percent since 2008, more than any other nation in the world so far this century on a raw tonnage basis. At the same time, methane emissions from natural gas systems, which activists have falsely claimed wipe out natural gas’ climate benefits, have also declined since 2008, even as oil and natural gas production has skyrocketed.

Remarkably, overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are down nine percent since the shale revolution took hold.

There is also no scientific evidence to support the claim that fracking adversely impacts water on a widespread basis. No fewer than two dozen scientific reports released over the past 10 years show that fracking is not a major threat to groundwater. And that's for good reason: The scientific community agrees that upward migration of fracking fluid from production zones, typically located a mile or more beneath the surface, is implausible. A landmark 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report even noted that “hydraulic fracturing operations are unlikely to generate sufficient pressure to drive fluids into shallow drinking water zones.”

Anti-fracking activists also claim that fracking increases air pollution and impacts public health. But once again, increased natural gas use, made possible by fracking, has actually led to dramatic reductions in emissions of the three most prominent “criteria” pollutants deemed most harmful to public health by the EPA. Fracking is thus yielding undeniable net health benefits.

And at a local level, multiple reports based on actual air measurements have found that emissions near oil and natural gas production sites are nothing unusually high. For instance, a 2017 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment assessment based on 10,000 air samples collected near areas of significant oil and natural gas development concluded, “[T]he risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] oil and gas operations.”

All told, the widespread environmental and health-related calamities that anti-fracking activists claimed shale development would create have simply not materialized over the last decade.

In the meantime, the United States is enjoying its ninth consecutive year of economic growth, an unprecedented run of prosperity in our nation’s history. The fact that this growth has occurred at the same time fracking has helped us emerge as “the undisputed leader of oil and gas production worldwide,” according to International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol, is no coincidence.

Thanks to fracking, literally millions of jobs have been created and energy prices are at all-time lows, not only helping Americans make more money, but keep more money in their pockets. We are also reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as our economy soars, an unprecedented and once unimaginable trend. And our nation’s energy security is as strong as it’s ever been, putting the United States in a position of geopolitical strength at a crucial juncture in an increasingly volatile world.

Despite fracking opponents’ claims, the evidence really couldn’t be any clearer: The first decade of the U.S. shale revolution has yielded huge benefits. Moving forward into the second decade of America’s remarkable energy renaissance, these benefits should carry far more weight than the tired and unsubstantiated rhetoric disseminated by the "keep it in the ground" movement.

Seth Whitehead is a spokesman for Energy In Depth , a research, education and outreach program sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.