Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, has exploded in the U.S. since George Mitchell first broke rocks with water. Massive oil and gas fields have proliferated across the U.S., from Texas to Louisiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, North Dakota and, soon enough, California.
But with every new field, a malignancy grows. Two increasingly vociferous arguments continue to dominate nearly every debate about fracking: It is either unquestionably beneficial or a scourge on the environment.
There is no middle ground.
We’re constantly reminded of the countless jobs and significant economic returns that fracking has generated. We also know of the potential environmental hazards, like groundwater contamination and air pollution, and of the billions of gallons of water used in the process. But we lack a credible source on the impacts of fracking and, more importantly, how to drill wisely.
The blame lies largely with the oil and gas industry, which has struggled to calm public concerns over fracking. Many drilling corporations fund PR efforts that attempt to quickly destroy criticism of fracking and undermine concerns about its effects. But unanswered questions don’t disappear. They linger, attracting the attention of concerned citizens who become organized opposition. The industry has brought this upon itself.
Both sides, however, stand to profit from the lack of nuance in the debate. The industry relies on Wall Street for sustenance, and the environmental groups that oppose fracking rely on fundraising. Both depend on clear-cut, all-or-nothing arguments to stir passions.
We have a bad record of demonizing energy sources, like coal and nuclear power, allowing industries to continue their bad practices because we get stuck trying to kill them. Shale energy production is not going away, but we can make the process safer and more receptive to landowners and the public. Environmental and opposition groups should admit that the technical process is not the enemy; it’s the corporations attempting to remain untouched by regulation.
Luckily, industry officials have recently expressed interest in seeking more public acceptance and improving their practices. In a tectonic shift, ExxonMobil, based in Irving, announced in April that it would begin disclosing more information on the risks of fracking, including effects on air quality, water supplies and infrastructure.
But that’s not enough. The industry should support a platform for criticism and invite robust debate. it should help foster a middle ground influenced by science, law, government and landowners. The more thorough the debate, the greater the public’s confidence.
Given the scale of production in the U.S., a reckoning will come. Mitchell, the so-called father of fracking, urged the industry he enabled to address its impacts on the environment, water consumption and local communities. He died before seeing his advice heeded.
Shale production holds tremendous benefits, but it presents unprecedented consequences that merit a higher-level debate than the mud fight we have now.
If we want to reap the benefits of fracking in the long term, both industry forces and those that oppose them must yield to a new middle that can hold both ideas. That’s a fight worth winning.