How Risky Is Fracking?

April 28, 2014

Environmentalists have targeted fracking, lambasting it as a danger and an environmental hazard, but those concerns are largely overblown. While there are real risks due to fracking, actual occurrences are rare, say Terry Anderson and Carson Bruno of the Hoover Institution.

The three main concerns with fracking involve water use, water contamination and seismic activity.

  • Water use: There are concerns that fracking will deplete water supplies, as a fracking well uses somewhere between 2 million and 5 million gallons of water, with up to 80 percent of that water staying below the earth's surface. However, that number needs to be put into perspective -- New York City uses 5 million gallons of water in just six minutes. While dry, western states undoubtedly have concerns about water usage, developing water markets and defining property rights would best lead to efficient water use.
  • Water contamination: There is little evidence to support claims that fracturing fluids could contaminate groundwater. Studies from Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Environmental Protection Agency all found no evidence of fracking fluid contamination in local water sources. As for methane leakage -- the other potential contamination source -- studies indicate that high methane levels found near fracking wells are either naturally occurring, or are the product of poor well design, a problem easily remedied.
  • Induced seismic activity: Will fracking cause earthquakes? In theory, it is possible that improper water disposal could cause seismic activity. Even so, it is unlikely that such an earthquake would be significant and would, instead, be felt only by persons at rest.

Moreover, the risks of fracking should always be weighed against the benefits. North Dakota -- whose unemployment rate moved only from 3 percent to 4 percent during the Great Recession, largely escaping the problems seen by the rest of the nation -- has been at the center of the fracking boom, with oil and gas production rising 58 percent between December 2007 and June 2009.

Oil and gas production due to fracking offers massive benefits to the rest of the economy, not just North Dakota. According to IHS Global Insight, by 2020, fracking could yield an additional $417 billion to the U.S. economy, employing close to 3 million Americans.

Even though fracking risks are rare, they should be addressed. But addressing them does not mean imposing a moratorium on the practice or implementing burdensome regulations.

Source: Terry Anderson and Carson Bruno, "Risky Hydraulic Fracturing?" Hoover Institution, April 15, 2014.

 

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