The Fracking Debate

Daniel Raimi, author of “The Fracking Debate” on the risks, benefits and uncertainties of the shale revolution.

The Fracking Debate Book Cover
The cover of Daniel Raimi's book, “The Fracking Debate.” Image courtesy of Daniel Raimi.

It can be a challenge for the public to get good unbiased information about the impact of hydraulic fracturing and the rest of the oil and gas production process. If you really want to understand fracking, “think about adding the Permian basin, Utica shale, or another [oil and gas] producing region to your list of travel destinations,” begins Daniel Raimi, a senior research associate at Resources for the Future. “A few days of driving through oil and gas country, coupled with conversations across a barstool, can teach you as much as dozens of journal articles and research reports.”

But if you can’t make oilfield visits a part of your next vacation, reading Raimi’s book “The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution” (Columbia University Press), is the next best thing. Part of the Center on Global Energy Policy Series, “The Fracking Debate” can be regarded as the definitive book about fracking and the impact of the shale revolution—a revolution that has allowed U.S. natural gas production to reach all-time highs and reinvigorated domestic oil production.

To produce the book, Raimi conducted in-person interviews in more than twenty oil and gas producing regions around the United States, including the Eagle Ford (pronounced EE-gull-ferd) shale play in southern Texas, the Bakken region of North Dakota, and the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania. Then he reconciled what he saw and heard with the available scholarly research. As a result, “the Fracking Debate” gives the reader a balanced and accessible look at the world of oil and gas development in the U.S., one which allows the reader to finally make sense of the issue.

Why is fracking and oil and gas production so important? There are now hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells in the United States and tens of thousands of new wells being drilled each year. So American shale development—which has already had an effect on energy consumers worldwide by reducing the price of oil and gas—is going to be a big part of this country’s future, for better and worse.   

In the following long form Failure Interview, Raimi discusses the concerns of those who live near oil and gas fracking sites, the potential health benefits of natural gas displacing coal for electricity production, why it’s so challenging to assess the overall impact of fracking, and the feedback he has received from industry and environmentalists alike.

What is the goal of “The Fracking Debate”? 

The goal of the book is to provide a resource that is thorough and accessible but also balanced in the way it tries to look at all of the evidence. A lot of the information one gets about oil and gas development is cherry-picked by both sides of the debate. “The Fracking Debate” incorporates all of the evidence and helps readers with where the weight of the evidence lies on each issue.

How were you able to visit so many different oil and gas producing regions?

I was lucky to travel to all of these places through a research project that aimed to find out how increased oil and gas development is affecting the ability of local governments to provide services and raise revenue. Local governments don’t publish a lot of information on their Web sites and it can be difficult to get hold of local government officials remotely, so the best approach is to go to them and sit down for structured interviews.

I ended up going to twenty-one different regions in sixteen different states, a number of which I visited multiple times. Once the workday had come to a close and I was done with my interviews, I had time to go to bars and restaurants and talk to people and learn about their experiences with the oil and gas industry.

What I tried to do is to integrate those conversations—both the formal ones and the informal ones—with reviews of the research on the topics I cover in the book. The lessons one can draw come both from bottom-up sources, the people who live in these regions, and also from the research viewpoint.

In the book you highlight how the term fracking is often used to refer to the entire oil and gas production process, and not specifically the hydraulic fracturing aspect. Why is this distinction important?

It’s important because from a policy perspective, if you want to design policies that reduce the risks of a given activity you have to understand what activity it is you’re concerned about. When people refer to the entire process of oil and gas production as fracking, it’s not helpful from a policy perspective because many of the most substantial risks associated with oil and gas development do not come directly from fracking. Instead, they come from other parts of the process, and I talk about those in the book.

For instance, impacts to groundwater resources are typically not caused by hydraulic fracturing but can be caused by improper well cementing and casing. Other risks are associated with spills of wastewater at the surface or spills from the pits and ponds that store oil and gas wastewater.

If you think about those risks as being fracking, you are not going to be able to accurately or effectively reduce the risks from those specific activities. So if you’re coming at this from a policy perspective, it’s important to understand the specific activities that cause the specific risks and then work to mitigate those risks in a more careful way.

Why is assessing the impact of fracking—and related processes—so challenging?

Two things come to mind. First, the application of these technologies on a large scale is relatively new. And researchers often require years—if not decades—of data to come up with reliable research results on any given topic.

Another challenge is that oil and gas development in the shale era is taking place in regions where the impacts are somewhat new. For most of the last 150 years, oil and gas development has taken place far away from where large numbers of people lived. There are a couple of exceptions. For example, Los Angeles has been an oil producing region for a long time.

But some of the places where the shale revolution is most pronounced—such as Fort Worth or north of Denver along the Front Range—these are places where oil and gas development is now taking place in close proximity to large numbers of people. 

So the direct impact—on drinking water sources, through air emissions associated with oil and gas development, and through other pathways—wasn’t studied in great depth because so much of the activity occurred in rural areas. But now that fracking has become a relatively hot topic there is a lot more interest and researchers are doing their best to understand the impacts.

The most common worries about fracking seem to be associated with other parts of the process, not hydraulic fracking itself.

That’s right. One of the first big concerns was that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids were going to infiltrate water supplies and have major negative consequences for people living downstream or near oil and gas development. 

But over the last ten years we really have not seen any large scale contamination of water sources from hydraulic fracturing chemicals. One of the most important reasons is that hydraulic fracturing typically takes place far below the surface and it is vanishingly unlikely that the chemicals are going to migrate up to the surface and affect groundwater supplies. 

However, there are other risks to water supplies, and as you suggested they are typically not directly related to hydraulic fracturing. 

One of the most common problems with any oil and gas development concerns the integrity of wells. If there are problems with the steel and cement that constitutes a well then fluids or gases that should stay inside the well could get out and into the environment, including groundwater. 

We have hundreds of cases in Pennsylvania alone where problems with the integrity of oil and gas wells have led to accumulations of methane in groundwater. If enough of it accumulates in a water source in an enclosed location it can be an explosive hazard. There have been cases where structures—including homes—have exploded because of methane accumulation.

What are the primary concerns of those who live near oil and gas fracking sites?

When I spoke with people around the country and asked them what the problems were for those living around the industry, environmental health risks were rarely mentioned. That’s not to say they are not important or that they are not real, but the most common concerns expressed to me about living in or around the industry related to quality of life issues. Truck traffic in particular was a big concern of pretty much everyone I spoke with in very active regions.

Other concerns were related to the changing character of the communities. For example, in rural North Dakota several cities in the Bakken region expanded rapidly over the last ten years because of the influx of oil and gas activity. For people who have lived in that region for a long time, they have conflicting views about that development. 

On one side of the coin, the economic benefits have been enormous and many people are very happy about the economic opportunities. At the same time, they recognize that the composition of the cities has changed quite a bit. The cities are busier, there is a lot more traffic, and there are a lot more hassles.

What are the challenges of assessing the health risks of fracking, as well as the potential health benefits of natural gas largely displacing coal? 

There are two things to think about when it comes to health risks and health benefits of the shale revolution.

At the local level there are health risks of living near oil and gas production. The research on this topic is still quite limited but what some of the best studies suggest is that there are health risks from living within one kilometer of an oil and gas well.

Because the research on this topic is so new, we don’t know the specific cause of those health risks. We don’t know if the risks are primarily from air pollution or from stress. The stress of living near industrial activity might in and of itself cause negative health impacts. 

So we don’t know the mechanism of the health impacts but we know that the impacts are real. We are still trying to quantify how big they are and how close you need to be to the well to actually experience those impacts. That’s the negative side of things at the local level. 

If you zoom out to the national level there are substantial public health benefits of increased natural gas production displacing coal in the electric power sector. Coal-fired electricity emits a variety of criteria pollutants that contribute to thousands of premature deaths each year in the United States. 

Natural gas-fired electricity—as well as nuclear and renewable electricity—generally does not emit these criteria pollutants. So when natural gas, or any source of electricity, displaces coal that is a substantial health win for the population as a whole. 

The thing that is tricky is that the benefits of reduced coal-fired electricity are very diffuse; they are spread out across the country and it’s hard for people to notice their direct impact. Whereas the localized risks of oil and gas development are more apparent and tend to attract more attention. 

Do you see fracking as being good or bad in terms of climate change? 

Over the last ten years and over the next ten years or so I think the shale revolution will be a benefit in terms of climate change. The main reason for that is natural gas’s displacement of coal in the electric power sector.

Natural gas, when used for electricity, generates about half of the carbon dioxide emissions of a similar coal-fired power plant. Over the last five years we have seen natural gas grow dramatically and we’ve seen coal decline dramatically in the electricity sector. Today we are down to 1990s levels of carbon dioxide emissions; more than any other reason that is because of the shale revolution. 

But this issue is a little more complicated than just the carbon dioxide story because there are also methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and when methane escapes from a well or a pipeline or from any other piece of equipment, its greenhouse gas impacts are substantially more powerful than those of carbon dioxide. 

So there has been quite a bit of research about how much methane is being emitted from oil and gas systems and whether those methane emissions are large enough to offset the benefits of natural gas’s displacement of coal. My analysis of the full body of work suggests that methane emissions from natural gas are not high enough to negate the benefits we get from coal displacement [in the short term].

The longer term story is more complicated and over the long term I think natural gas is probably not a climate villain and probably not a climate hero when it comes to the impact on climate change. That’s because natural gas doesn’t just compete with coal in the electric power sector, it also competes with investments in wind and solar and with existing nuclear plants, all of which are potentially zero carbon. 

At the same time, the shale revolution has dramatically reduced the prices of both natural gas and oil and when prices go down people use more. And because of lower oil and natural gas prices, energy consumption is likely to increase, which would increase carbon dioxide emissions.

When you smash all of these factors together and analyze them over the next couple decades and compare the world with the shale revolution to the world without the shale revolution, most research shows that those worlds don’t look very different in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. 

So in the short term it has been beneficial for the fight against climate change. Over the next twenty or thirty years it will only be beneficial if we enact meaningful climate change policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not just from coal but also from natural gas, oil and other fuels. 

What are the prospects for fracking making the U.S. energy independent? 

Energy independence is a popular term that’s been around for a few decades but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful. When I hear the word independence I think about the United States not being engaged in global markets for energy trade. If that’s the goal then energy independence would do more harm than good. There is enormous value to being integrated into the global energy trading system.

For example, the Gulf of Mexico is a major oil producing region and there are many oil refineries along the Gulf of Mexico that refine crude oil into gasoline and diesel and the other products we use every day. If a hurricane comes along—as it does every few years—and disrupts oil production in the Gulf or disrupts refineries in Houston, then the U.S. needs access to international energy markets. Or if there are disruptions in oil or natural gas pipelines it’s valuable to have access to international markets. Without access to those international markets, prices would spike far more than they already do when we have a natural disaster or unanticipated outage. 

At the same time, producers of oil and natural gas want access to the biggest markets possible. They want access to those who will pay higher prices for their products. So integrating into the international energy system is the strategy I think we want to pursue and the shale revolution has actually increased U.S. energy interdependence.

With new oil and gas production growing rapidly, the U.S. is now exporting natural gas around the world through liquefied natural gas export terminals. We are also exporting more crude oil than we ever have before. The shale revolution has made us more integrated into the global energy market and I think that’s a good thing. Independence is not really a desirable goal.

Could fracking turn a country or some unexpected part of the world into an oil and gas superpower? 

I don’t know if it could turn an unexpected part of the world into a superpower but it certainly could make parts of the world more important to the international energy system. North Dakota is a good example. 

In the 1990s, western North Dakota produced very little oil. Today it produces more than a million barrels of oil each day. That’s more than some OPEC counties. 

North Dakota is not Saudi Arabia or Russia or the United States as a whole, but if other counties are able to develop oil and gas from shale it certainly could make them more important players in the international energy scene. But I think it’s unlikely that we are going to see a fundamental restructuring of energy markets in other countries anytime soon. 

Having said that, the U.S. has become a more important player in terms of global energy production; we were already a large producer of oil and natural gas, but we are now quickly becoming the largest producer of oil and natural gas. 

What kind of feedback have you received from environmentalists and people in the oil and gas industries? 

I have gotten the responses that I was anticipating, which is that some in the industry and in environmental groups think that the book is really helpful and useful by providing evidence on these topics. But I have also gotten negative reactions from the extremes of those communities. Those who are vehemently anti-fracking and vehemently pro-fracking have criticized parts of the book.

Typically the very pro-industry folks aren’t necessarily happy with my discussions about climate change or the real risks of oil and gas development on human health and water sources. At the same time, the very anti-fracking organizations are not happy with my discussion of the very real economic benefits that people experience. They are also not happy with how I characterize the impacts of the shale revolution on climate change and some other environmental risks. But these are criticisms that I expected and the response has been more positive than negative.  

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