Why the Scientific Case Against Fracking Keeps Getting Stronger
Anthony Ingraffea argues that fugitive methane emissions turn natural gas from a climate benefit into yet another strike against fossil fuels.
On the political right, it’s pretty popular these days to claim that the left exaggerates scientific worries about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” In a recentNational Review article, for instance, a Hoover Institution researcher complains that 53 percent of Democrats in California support a fracking ban “despite the existence of little if any credible scientific evidence of fracking’s feared harms and overwhelming scientific evidence of its environmental benefits, including substantial reductions in both local and global pollutants.”
Three or four years ago, a statement like that may have seemed defensible. The chief environmental concern about fracking at that time involved the contamination of drinking water through the fracking process—blasting water, sand, and chemicals underground in vast quantities and at extreme pressures to force open shale layers deep beneath the Earth, and release natural gas. But the science was still pretty ambiguous, and a great deal turned on how “fracking” was defined. The entire mega-process of “unconventional” gas drilling had clearly caused instances of groundwater contamination, due to spills and leaks from improperly cased wells. But technically, “fracking” only refers to the water and chemical blast, not the drilling, the disposal of waste, or the huge industrial operations that accompany it all.
How things have changed. Nowadays, explains Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream above), the scientific argument against fracking and unconventional gas drilling is more extensive. It involves not simply groundwater contamination, but also at least two other major problems: earthquake generation and the accidental emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
On the show, Ingraffea laid out the science on these issues—and it is certainly not something a reasonable person can ignore. Take earthquakes, for instance. According to Ingraffea, “there is now, in my opinion, scientific consensus that human-induced seismicity does occur” as a result of a particular aspect of unconventional gas drilling (namely, disposing of chemically laden “flowback water” in underground wastewater injection wells).
Ingraffea isn’t the likeliest scientific foe of fracking. His past research has beenfunded by corporations and industry interests including Schlumberger, the Gas Research Institute, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. His original doctoral work, in the 1970s, involved the study of “rock fracture mechanics”—in other words, how cracks in rock form and propagate, a body of knowledge that is crucial to extractive industries like oil and gas. “I spent 20, 25 years working with the oil and gas industry…helping them to figure out how best to get oil and gas out of rock,” Ingraffea explains.
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