Of Course Fracking Is Safe, Stanford Prof Says

May 08, 2019

Jeff McMahon | Forbes | June 26, 2017

The benefits of fracking far outweigh its costs not only economically, but environmentally, a Stanford University geophysicist said Friday.

After teaching geophysics at Stanford for 30 years Mark Zoback took the helm of Stanford's new Natural Gas Initiative three years ago, he said, because of gas's environmental benefits.

"We did it because there were so many important and obvious environmental benefits to the utilization of natural gas," Zoback said. "So it’s somewhat ironic to be asked to argue for the notion that these benefits outweigh the environmental costs, when it’s the environmental benefits that got me into this business in the first place."

Zoback's remarks opened the annual debate at Stanford's Silicon Valley Energy Summit, and were swiftly challenged by representatives of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Zoback argued that natural gas can replace coal and "dirty diesel" at significant scale throughout the world, supporting economic growth while slashing carbon emissions. (When burned, natural gas emits about half the CO2 that coal does).

"The global abundance of natural gas provided in part by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing provides us with a critical option for addressing all of these critical issues," Zoback said. "Natural gas is an ideal fuel to decarbonize and cause less pollution in the energy system in the future. It is not the end; it is a means to get to a decarbonized energy world."

And when properly regulated, he added, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is safe for the environment, as demonstrated by the 250,000 fracked wells already operating in the U.S.

"The assertion that this caused or will soon cause severe environmental damage is simply not true and needlessly alarmist. Through emphasizing best practice, appropriate regulation, and enforcement of those regulations, I have every confidence that horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracturing can be done with minimal environmental impact."

Lena Moffitt of the Sierra Club said the 15 million Americans who live near fracking rigs have had a different experience of the impact of those 250,000 fracked wells.

"If any of you have had an opportunity to visit with the families living near fracking rigs or living immediately adjacent to them sometimes, you will know the impacts are very real and they cannot be ignored," she said. Those impacts include nosebleeds, rashes, nausea and dizziness, increases in premature births and birth defects.

And Moffitt reminded the audience that natural gas not only emits CO2 when burned, but the natural-gas infrastructure leaks methane—a far more potent greenhouse gas—at every stage of "the entire fracking life cycle."

"These impacts are real, they are significant, and they cannot be ignored," she said.

Tasked with rebutting Moffitt, Dane Boysen, the former director of research operations at the Gas Technology Institute, did not refute her claims directly, though he lamented what he called "misinformation out there," and later in the debate he suggested neighbor impacts were isolated incidents. Instead he emphasized more benefits.

“My friends have some legitimate concerns about fracking," he said, "but environmental activism did not kill coal, it was the success of unconventional gas and oil development.”

Unconventional development—another way to refer to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—has also moved the United States closer to energy independence, Boysen said, adding $1.2 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product and creating 9.3 million jobs.

Briana Mordick of the NRDC countered that those gains are temporary because fossil fuels are finite. Even people who don't care about the environment should want to stop using fossil fuels because an economy that depends on them is headed for chaos when they run out. "Burning fossil fuels inevitably leads to chaos," she said, one way or another:

"I agree with my opponent that the basic facts and truth matter and are what's important," she said, "and the basic fact is that burning fossil fuels is fundamentally changing our planet in a way that threatens the continued existence of humanity ."