The Ethical Issues of Hydraulic Fracturing

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Prior to debating the ethics of hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracture, it is necessary to understand what it means to “frack” for natural gas, as well as the pros and cons of this practice relative to our lives and to the environment. Hydrofracture, or “fracking,” is a method of chemical-infused horizontal drilling through layers of shale, coal, and sand, in order to break them up and release the natural gas or oil they contain. Perfected by the Halliburton Company, this method of accessing fossil fuels, which would otherwise be too difficult and expensive to acquire, has allowed us to tap into our own resources in the United States, particularly the Marcellus Shale Formation under Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia, and the Barnett Shale Formation in Texas. While hydrofracking does provide us with our own supply of natural gas so that we do not have to rely on foreign suppliers, it is an extremely controversial practice because it is believed to cause serious health problems, as well as significant air and water pollution. Essentially, it is suspected of poisoning our bodies and our environment, yet there is little legislation in place that will regulate the toxins which are used and also released in the fracking process. Furthermore, since big businesses in the U.S. today tend to exercise major influence over government, policies are often written that cater to big business interests, rather than protecting the welfare of the individual citizens. A perfect example of this is the “Halliburton Loophole,” which refers to the fact that somehow fracking was left out of the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act under the Bush-Cheney administration. (www.earthworksaction.org) As a result of this “oversight,” drilling companies are not required by this legislation to reveal the chemical cocktails they use in the fracking process. Therefore, it is not surprising that hydrofracking for natural gas has become an extremely heated ethical issue, particularly given that our economy is in such a fragile state and we are desperate for new opportunities that promise relief and hope for the future. A more detailed examination of what hydraulic fracturing means to man and his environment, as well as the pros and cons on either side of the debate, will reveal the ethical questions that we need to ask ourselves in order to determine how we approach hydrofracturing going forward. As Steven Mintz addresses on his website ethicssage.com, “increasingly, we as Americans, will be faced with tradeoff-decisions between sacrificing some health and safety concerns in the name of providing economic benefits, including jobs and increasing exports to countries like China that crave safer natural gas energy supplies for its growing economy.” (www.ethicssage.com)
Hydraulic fracturing is a process of horizontal drilling through dense layers of shale, coal, or sand in order to access oil or natural gas trapped in these formations. Horizontal drilling refers to drilling down to the formation layer that contains the fossil fuels, and then turning the drilling horizontally through the entire layer of shale to get the highest yield. Once a well has been drilled, casings are inserted which are:
perforated within the target zones that contain oil or gas, so that when the fracturing fluid is injected into the well it flows through the perforations into the target zones. Eventually, the target formation will not be able to absorb the fluid as quickly as it is being injected. At this
point the pressure created causes the formation to crack or fracture. (http://www.earthworksaction.org)  The frac fluid contains excessive quantities of water (millions of gallons per well), along with a variety of chemicals and a “proppant,” which serves to “prop” open the fractures in order to maintain permeability into the formations. This process of fracking the well releases the natural gas as well as forcing “flow back,” which refers to the waste water remains of the frac fluid, back to the surface. In addition to the frac chemicals and proppant in the flow back water, this poisonous cocktail has been found to contain “radioactive elements and carcinogens” (www.tomdispatch.com) which were part of the shale formation prior to fracking.
The waste water from the fracking process is disposed of in various ways, including being injected back into the ground and being sent to water treatment facilities which allegedly remove impurities and deposit the treated water into rivers and streams.  According to the “pro-fracking” camp, there are many benefits of hydraulic fracturing which make this controversial practice worthwhile. First, it allows us to take advantage of our own natural resources here in the United States, rather than having to rely on foreign suppliers, particularly those in the Middle East, with whom we are not on the “best of terms:” most of these countries support terrorism, thereby putting us in a contradictory position to be buying their fossil fuels. Advocates of hydrofracture insist that the supply of natural gas from the Barnett Shale and the Marcellus Shale alone is enough to sustain us for at least the next hundred years. (http://www.americanprogress.org) Pro-fracking politicians and lawmakers promote the positives of drilling by predicting the huge number of jobs it will create for Americans, particularly at a time when unemployment is so high and opportunities are few. They insist that our economy will turn around and everyone will benefit from drilling oil and gas wells on our own soil. The big U.S. gas and energy companies such as Exxon-Mobil and Chesapeake Energy maintain that current hydraulic fracturing technology is not only safe, but that tapping into our own natural gas resources will reduce our carbon footprint and thus our CO2 emissions which are linked to global warming. According to Chesapeake Energy’s “facts” page on their website: This discovery has the potential to not only dramatically reduce our reliance on foreign fuel imports, but also to significantly reduce our national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and to
accelerate our transition to a carbon-light environment. Simply put, deep shale natural gas and oil formation development is critical to America’s energy needs and its economic renewal.
Another benefit is the lease payments made to landowners by natural gas companies that want to drill on privately owned land—according to the Marcellus Coalition, this figure was approximately 1.6 billion dollars. This organization also claims that “the Pennsylvania Marcellus industry is projected to generate more than $12.8 billion in economic activity in 2011, leading to more than $1.2 billion in state and local taxes and supporting more than 156,000 jobs,” (www.marcelluscoalition.org) which is an increase of 16,000 jobs since the previous year. These figures are undoubtedly very attractive to a struggling economy where so many people are living in poverty!
While the pros seem, without a doubt, quite appealing, there are also cons which need to be given equal measure. First, there is the issue of pollution, to both our air and our water. The process of hydraulic fracturing requires the use of a litany of chemicals, many of them considered toxic and carcinogenic: “potentially toxic substances include petroleum distillates such as kerosene and diesel fuel (which contain benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene and other chemicals), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, glycol ethers, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide.” (www.earthworksaction.org) After all, it doesn’t take much chemistry to poison vast amounts of water, and unfortunately, the chemistry does not simply evaporate away into the atmosphere, but rather remains in our ecosystems to cause long term damage. Many anti-fracking activists insist that putting any toxic chemicals into the ground is not a safe practice, and that flow back water can never be adequately treated in order to be considered safe. When treated water is poured back into our rivers and streams, anti-frackers maintain that it is poisoning our water supply. Additionally, the hydraulic fracturing process utilizes tremendous amounts of our precious freshwater supply, and releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. The lack of regulation on drilling companies is another problem for those opposed to hydraulic fracturing: “current legislation is pathetic, due to exemptions secured by the gas drilling industry from many major federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act. As a result, gas drilling companies can disregard requirements that other industries have to follow.” (www.nrdc.org) In other words, drilling companies are not required by law to disclose the“chemical cocktails” they use in the hydraulic fracturing process, maintaining that this information constitutes “trade secrets.” Furthermore, there is no regulation on well-drilling concentration or proximity to human populations. When it comes to drilling sites, local residents have very little power to oppose the big gas and energy companies, who, incidentally, are the biggest winners in this equation.
Hydraulic fracturing has become one of the hottest controversies today, and at the heart of the issue is whether or not we actively choose to prioritize our present gratification before the health and longevity of our environment. Points on both sides of this argument are valid in some respect, and no matter which position a person ultimately holds, he or she can not help but acknowledge that the opposing side has advantages as well. Issues for ethical debate include health effects to humans, levels of environmental damage, political corruption via financial “ties” to big business, and a great deal of misinformation. With regard to the health effects to humans, it seems reasonable and highly likely that the toxic chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, as well as the carcinogenic chemicals released from underground during the process, can and will be harmful to our health. “Human exposure to fracking chemicals can occur by ingesting chemicals that have spilled and entered drinking water sources, through direct skin contact with the chemicals or wastes,… or by breathing in vapors from flowback wastes stored in pits and tanks.” (www.earthworksaction.org) Since flow back wastewater needs to be disposed of, it is often sent to treatment plants to have the impurities removed. However, this is an extremely expensive process, thereby presenting the temptation for drilling companies to illegally “dump” the tainted flow back water directly into rivers, or at the side of the highway, or in rural fields, which, in actuality, is already happening. In some areas of the country, frack waste water is sprayed over rural acreage for disposal. Furthermore, since the flow back contains large amounts of salt, it is often used to spray across icy winter roads. In all of these cases, the chemicals will ultimately feed right back into our water supply. In addition to posing a great threat to our human health, this toxic wastewater is also poisoning our air and our soil. It is killing wildlife and vegetation and making our animals sick. Environmental damage as a result of this process is extensive and documented, not to mention that our wilderness areas become polluted and our landscapes destroyed.  The sheer volume of water being used in the fracking process is another major concern for those against hydrofracture. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an estimate of “70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year. This is approximately the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities each with a population of 50,000.” (www.earthworksaction.org) Considering freshwater is such a precious resource, it seems outright reckless to fill it with hazardous chemicals intentionally.
The exploitation of low income and working class people by the big energy companies, in addition to the misinformation they propagate to “paint a pretty picture” on the dirty practice of hydrofracture, also casts hydraulic fracturing in an unethical light. “The gas industry is feeding us a storyline about how beneficial natural gas is, calling it a bridge to a clean energy future that will help us solve [the problem of]…global warming,” (www.nrdc.org) when in fact this is extremely misleading. Not only are we continuing to use fossil fuels for our energy needs rather than exploring renewable options, but the hydraulic fracturing process produces methane, which is considered one of the greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Furthermore, energy companies prey on people who need the money, and can not afford to turn down financial offers for use of their land for drilling. In a testimonial from Barbara Clifford of Montrose, Pennsylvania, who chose not to lease her land for hydrofracture, she declares that she:
[doesn’t] blame the farmers…[who have leased their land]. They didn’t have the income to
keep their land, so they were almost forced to lease. People around here are honest people,
and they expect other people to be honest too. So I think when they signed, they really
believed what they were told, and the industry is so new, nobody knew. And now, every
farmer I’ve talked to that has leased is worried to death about what’s going to happen
Statements like these from people actually involved in the lease offers lead to the conclusion that, without a doubt, these energy companies are exploiting the poor and the fragile state of the economy for their own financial gain. They are accused of not providing accurate or complete information to potential lease holders, or to the public in general about the dangers of hydrofracture. Instead they develop flashy marketing campaigns to lure people into believing that drilling our domestic shale deposits such as the Marcellus will be the salvation for both our economic future and also our environment. The reason it is such a heated ethical debate is because we don’t need to use hydraulic fracturing, particularly in untapped areas such as the Marcellus Shale. Contrary to what the energy companies are telling us, this program is not necessary to our future and not in our best interests. “Gas companies aren’t pushing fracking because it is beneficial—or even safe—for the environment. They’re pushing it to make money—and why not? That’s what they’re in business for.” (www.nrdc.org) Why aren’t government and big energy businesses devoting significant resources and effort toward developing and investing in renewable energy? Why aren’t they creating legislation, not only to prohibit further hydraulic fracturing but also to support and expand the renewable energy sector by creating jobs and making these renewable options more affordable for homeowners via government tax breaks and other incentives? Why are we not protecting the health of our planet with all our ability, so that our children and grandchildren are not poisoned by our excesses. Sandra Steingraber’s words encapsulate the ethics of the hydraulic fracturing issue in a nutshell:
this [water] is what my kids are made of. They are made of water. They are made of the food that is
grown in the country that I live in. And they are made of air. We inhale a pint of atmosphere with
every breath we take…And when you poison these things, you poison us. This is a violation of our
human rights, and that is why this is the civil rights issue of our day. (www.tomdispatch.com)
Life is precious. Continuing to expand our natural gas drilling operations is a mistake and is unethical and a terrible mistake.
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