Stop Fracking Around

A trending video on YouTube was posted by someone who set up a time lapse camera to record the hatching of four robin eggs. Instead, the camera captured a snake gobbling up all four eggs after the birds left the nest temporarily unguarded. Some viewers were horrified at seeing Nature at work, which to me is even more scary. People are often confused about Nature and its processes. Exhibit A is the tourists at Yellowstone National Park who put a bison calf in their car to protect it from the cold. Predictably, their well-meaning assistance actually resulted in the death of the calf. Nature cares not a whit about intentions; that is a human trait. But ultimately undesired results often follow well-intentioned actions.

Only an idiot would fail to be concerned about taking care of our environment. Trashing your home is suicidal whether we’re talking about an individual dwelling, a city, or the planet. In the case of future generations, it might be considered murder as well. Unfortunately, there are a lot of idiots running around. Many of them even hold political office and therefore have the power to really screw things up with “feel good” laws.

Surprisingly, some of the attacks on the environment are the result of environmentalists who plow ahead recklessly with ill-informed, fact-free schemes to save the planet. The fight to ban or severely restrict fracking in Colorado is a good example of hurting the environment in order to save it. The amount of misinformation being used in this campaign is comparable to the anti-vax crowd, and with similar results.

First, a little common ground. I share the goal of environmentalists to reduce fossil fuel use. I also agree that increasing use of renewable energy is a worthy goal. Lastly, I agree that any extraction of resources should have minimal long-term impact on the environment. But I add another concern that many eco-warriors fail to acknowledge: humans are also an important part of the environment. Like beavers, humans change the landscape in ways that are beneficial to some organisms, even if harmful to others. Beavers alter waterways in order to provide food and shelter for their families. Humans do the same. Some species of insects and fish need fast-moving water to survive but will die in beaver ponds. Other fish and insects thrive in the still waters of the pond but struggle to survive in undammed water.

The way humans meet their basic physical needs for themselves and their families is called economics. That is a reality that must be acknowledged if we are to be successful in leaving a healthy world for future generations. All too often, basic economic needs of humans are ignored while pursuing environmental goals. In the fight against fracking, chemical contamination, water scarcity, and seismic activity are often cited as the main reasons for banning the process. All of these concerns are fundamentally without merit, but the major problem that the fracking foes ignore is that we can’t meet our economic needs without this long-established practice. When people can’t get their needs met through official channels, then they will do it through the black market. And that almost always results in environmental disasters. Illegal rainforest destruction, small unregulated mining operations, and illicit hunting in Africa are just a few examples of the consequences of ignoring economics.

I have personal experience with oil and gas extraction in Colorado through my son, who has worked on many of the wells drilled in Northern Colorado in the last five years. Water is a scarce resource in Colorado, and conserving it is a high priority. This is why the industry reclaims and recycles most of the water used in fracking. As for chemical pollution, 99.5% of fracking fluid is sand and water. The remaining ½% varies from company to company and job to job. But the basic chemicals used are salt, bleach, acetic acid (vinegar), hydrochloric acid, and some kind of water repellent/ absorbant. Both the bleach and the acids break down quickly into less harmful substances. Even the chlorine gets locked up in some form of salt. The water repellant can be something as simple as corn starch although the polycacrylates used in diapers and potting soil can also used. The point is that none of these chemical are exotic or particularly dangerous in the amounts used.

Fracking fluids are pumped into sealed wells thousands of feet below the water table and recovered through other sealed wells. The possibility of fracking fluids contaminating the water table is highly unlikely. It is true that chemicals like benzene have been found in well water near some fracking sites. However, benzene is one of the petrochemicals that exist naturally in the ground. And the oil and gas wells are designed to collect and utilize the benzene, not force it up through thousands of feet of rock into drinking water. There’s no scientific reason to believe that the benzene got into water wells because of fracking rather than natural processes.

Earthquakes scare people, and rightfully so, and there is strong evidence that fracking can increase seismic activity. But thousands of earthquakes occur daily, including where you live. Mostly, you don’t notice them because they are less than 3 on the Richter Scale. When we do notice something, it is similar to thunder or a heavy truck passing nearby. Fracking earthquakes fall into this category. They are small, usually unnoticed, and do no real damage.

I understand that some people will argue that fracking is somehow still dangerous. But the facts, which can be verified with very little research, say otherwise. Most importantly, without horizontal fracking, modern life is impossible. While most people concentrate on the energy aspects of fracking, they may not realize that about half of petroleum products recovered by fracking are used in manufacturing. From your toothbrush to the roof over your head, petrochemical products sustain modern life. And all of the easy oil has been extracted. In fact, the need for petroleum in manufacturing is the best argument for eliminating fossil fuel burning for energy production.

Without fracking, we couldn’t switch from coal to natural gas (itself a renewable energy source) when generating electricity. Gas is much cleaner, safer, and better for the environment than coal, which is the dirtiest energy source being used today. Look at China’s air pollution as an example. Fracking bans would keep coal-fired plants open rather than shutting them down. Many eco-warriors are unaware of the dirty secret that many so-called green energy sources also have serious environmental consequences. Lithium batteries in electric cars, for example, depend on extraction technologies that are very harmful. Lithium itself is a very dangerous substance that catches fire when exposed to the air. If you require proof, there are plenty of videos online. Wind turbines have proven to be devastating to local bird populations. The mining processes used in extracting the rare earth metals found in the magnets for wind turbines are so toxic that the life expectancy for the Chinese prisoners forced to work there is only eighteen months.

But all of these energy issues pale in comparison to global warming, which is arguably the greatest environmental issue of all. When environmentalists refuse to acknowledge the importance of fracking, a technology that has been used safely since 1866, how can capitalists work with them on carbon taxes and other long-term solutions? The fanaticism of tree huggers just drives the fossil fuel industry and its supporters deeper into climate denial. And that intractability is far more dangerous than pumping sand and water underground.