The process uses about 99 percent water and sand, the rest being a solution of a few chemicals. Most drilling experts have asserted that it is highly improbable that fracking liquids will contaminate drinking water. Fortunately, no cases exist in which the fracking process itself has caused drilling liquids to contaminate drinking water. The issue then is whether the flowback hazard can remain at acceptable levels.
The risk comes from wells that are not designed properly. Failures in cementing the steel casing at the uppermost portion of a well can send gas bubbling from fracks into nearby water wells. This has occurred on occasion, so fracking liquids can end up in aquifers. The Environmental Protection Agency has now made the commitment that it will develop standards for disposing of flowback based on "economically achievable technology."
The industry recognizes that it must impose tight control and monitoring of flowback since its economic future depends on good environmental stewardship. John Deutch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and former official at the Department of Energy, headed a DOE advisory committee to evaluate these issues. The committee recommended that the industry establish a national technical organization to encourage, develop, and diffuse best practices such as sealing off the well shafts—a technique that offshore oil and gas operators have used for years. Methane in adjoining wells would be measured before and throughout the process.
The idea would be to improve techniques and methods based on measurements and field experience, documenting the best engineering practices to track and improve environmental results over time. The data would be disclosed and analyzed to improve field operations, minimize environmental impact, and incentivize the industry to adopt best practices. One possible option is to have the energy companies set aside a reasonable amount of money in advance to cope with possible environmental damage.
That the record is good so far doesn't mean it will remain so (we remember Deepwater Horizon). Still, public policy must take into account the positive attributes of this newfound gas. All forms of energy have their environmental drawbacks. Even the favorite energy sources of the sustainability movement have drawbacks: Windmill-inspired energy kills birds and spoils landscapes; solar paves deserts; biofuel devastates the rainforest; and hydro interrupts fish migration. But the potential hazards of fracking have to be put into the context of the critical benefits of switching to gas.
•Hydraulic fracking is a big plus in the struggle to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, since the use of natural gas emits less than either coal or oil. Turbines convert gas to electricity with much higher efficiency than other fossil fuels. "Natural gas combined cycle" plants produce less carbon dioxide compared with coal plants, and over the longer term, natural gas is a substitute for gasoline or diesel in many vehicles, since oil is three times as costly as natural gas for the given amount of energy.
•Gas is already making energy more affordable, putting downward pressure on oil prices.
•Falling oil prices will mean substantial savings while eroding the market and political power of today's major oil and gas exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia. Gas can make us much more resilient to shocks of supply disruptions and even conflicts, not to mention re-channeling revenues from unfriendly or undemocratic regimes. We should never forget how the oil sheiks used their power in the 1970s.
•We are likely within a decade to be able to cut our petroleum imports from 10 million barrels per day down to about 3 million—needs that could be met from Canada and Mexico, dramatically reducing our current account deficits.