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Environmental Policy in the OECD

The Fight Over Fracking

April 2, 2013 | by ALISON SINGER

Anti-fracking demonstration in New York, August 2012 © Adam Welz for CREDO Action via Flickr

Boon or Bane? Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", stirs controversy. The technology offers temporary economic incentives, but also poses huge environmental risks, argues Alison Singer from the Worldwatch Institute.

As the world hurtles towards catastrophic climate change, it is imperative to evaluate current policies, implement new policies, and transition towards a planet less dependent on fossil fuels. Easily accessible fossil fuels have been severely depleted due to our dependence on them.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", has been touted as a way to increase extraction efficiency and help sustain our current energy consumption rates. However, fracking has also been roundly criticized as environmentally damaging, and as a simple band-aid strategy to delay the inevitable end of fossil fuels.

How Does Fracking Work?

Fracking is a way to increase the efficiency of oil and gas wells, as well as access previously untapped reserves. It is performed by pumping fracturing fluid (composed of water, chemicals, and proppants) into a wellbore. Fracking has the most developed history in the United States, where it has been contributing to increased oil and natural gas production for several years.

Shale gas in particular has been heralded as an energy revolution: It has grown from 2 percent of US gas production in 2000 to 40 percent in 2012, and is touted as a substantially cleaner alternative to coal.

Thomas L. Friedman, author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, agrees that fracking should be exploited, as it is much cleaner than coal and inexpensive to disseminate. However, he is clear about the environmental dangers of fracking, including large amounts of methane leakage. Methane is even more dangerous than carbon dioxide in terms of its atmospheric warming properties.

Friedman suggests that we regulate fracking, ensuring the environment is as protected as it can be. At the same time he warns that fracking must not be relied upon in any long-term plans. It is imperative to continue developing renewable energy technologies, and providing the political and economic incentives to implement such technologies. Fracking should be used on a short-term basis only, while we institute the transition to a sustainable, renewable future.

Another Energy Policy is Possible

Thomas Princen and his colleagues explore this possible new future in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013. They understand that we live in a world built by fossil fuels, and we cannot simply ignore the energy potential of fossil fuels, but in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, we must utilize that potential as a springboard towards a renewable world.

Fossil fuels must be strictly regulated and used only when a substitute cannot be found. Instead of racing to uncover hidden reservoirs of fossil fuels, the authors argue that we must "imagine a deliberately chosen post-fossil fuel world," and then act in such a way to make that dream a reality.

However, it is difficult for many to ignore the immediate economic benefits to fracking. Boom towns have arisen in congruence with the increased emphasis on fracking, and some of the most depressed parts of the United States now have unemployment rates below 1 percent, providing high-paying jobs to thousands of workers.

Fracking has the potential to provide energy independence, a transition to cleaner energy, and economic prosperity to regions rich in untapped natural resources. However, it also poses dangerous risks to the environment, and may increase our dependence on fossil fuels instead of helping the transition to renewable energy and a cleaner future.

Fracking Prompts Protests and Legal Actions Across the Globe

From an environmental perspective, fracking poses a number of risks. Millions of gallons of water are pumped underground, and in places that already suffer from water shortages, this will only add to the problem. Chemicals are mixed with the water, and multiple studies have shown that these chemicals may contaminate groundwater, though the results are controversial. In addition to massive water usage and groundwater contamination, fracking has also been linked to increases in seismic activity.

Indeed, many areas have banned fracking in response to public outcries and environmental concern. In 2011, France became the first country to ban fracking, and lawmakers have vowed to uphold the ban until it can be proven that fracking definitively does not lead to groundwater contamination.

Quebec has also instituted a fracking moratorium, as have several states in the United Stated, as a result of increased public pressure. Reports of increased earthquake activity, illnesses in livestock exposed to fracking fluid, and fears of groundwater contamination have prompted protests and legal action across the globe.

Societies Built on Fossil Fuels are Unsustainable

However, the most dangerous aspect of fracking is the perpetuation of our fossil fuel dependence. Though fracking offers access to more fuel, and increases extraction efficiency in difficult wells, it is still concerned with a finite, polluting resource. Burning natural gas releases fewer carbon emissions than does burning coal, but this benefit may be offset by high methane leakage from gas fields.

Additionally, shifting from coal to natural gas simply shifts our reliance from one fossil fuel to another. While we have built a society on fossil fuels, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we cannot sustain such a society for very much longer.

In order to provide measurement standards and promote better policy making, the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project has evaluated 31 OECD states, many of which are among the world’s top polluters, in terms of their environmental protection. The overarching question they ask is whether current policies protect and preserve resources and the quality of the environment. SGI uses six indicators to compile an overall score: policy intervention, energy intensity, CO2 emissions, renewable energy, water usage, and waste management.

Overall, Nordic states scored highest, with waste management being the most pervasive problem, and proposed increases in nuclear energy causing some controversy. States with lower scores often demonstrate policy failures or political gridlock. For example, France abandoned its carbon tax and South Korea lowered its gas tax.

Additionally, many states continue to have high CO2 emissions and a lack of incentives for renewable energy. The SGI’s analysis points to some serious problems in the current environmental policies of OECD countries, and is indicative of the global difficulty to lower emissions and move towards a more renewable, sustainable society.

Alison Singer is pursuing a master's degree in Environmental Policy and Politics at Appalachian State University and writes for the blog "Is Sustainability Still Possible?" of the Worldwatch Institute.

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