Should "Fracking" Be Banned?

What is fracking and what is its impact? Students explore the issue and the political landscape around it, including efforts by activists to ban the practice.  

To the teacher:

Over the past fifteen years the unconventional natural gas extraction technique known as "horizontal hydraulic fracturing," or fracking, has led to a new boom in natural gas in the United States and around the world.

But what are the costs and benefits of fracking? Environmentalists have expressed grave concerns about fracking, arguing that it poses dangers to groundwater and produces emissions that worsen climate disruption, among other things.

This lesson consists of two readings to help students think critically about the impact of fracking. The first reading takes a closer look at what fracking is and what its potential impact might be. The second reading examines the political landscape around fracking, highlighting efforts by environmentalists in different parts of the world to ban the practice.



Reading 1:
"Fracking" and Its Impact

Over the past fifteen years the unconventional natural gas extraction technique known as "horizontal hydraulic fracturing," or fracking, has led to a new boom in natural gas in the United States and around the world.

But what is fracking, and what are its costs and benefits?

In Pennsylvania, where horizontal fracking has been happening for more than a decade, the website of the state’s public radio affiliate provides an introduction to the science of the process. Journalist Marie Cusick writes:

Slick water hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is a technology used to extract natural gas, and oil, that lies within a shale rock formation thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface.

Combined with another technique called "horizontal drilling," natural gas companies are able to drill previously untapped reserves.

The combination of the two has resulted in a boom in domestic oil and gas production over the past five years. Horizontal drilling allows one surface well to tap gas trapped over hundreds of acres. Once the conventional vertical drill hits the shale formation, it turns horizontally. Drilling can then occur in several directions, much like the spokes of a wheel....

Under very high pressure, a combination of water, sand and chemicals is sent deep into the earth to create cracks and fissures in the shale rock. Those fissures are held open by the sand, allowing the natural gas to flow through those cracks, into the well bore and up to the surface. Wastewater from the process returns to the surface contaminated with some of those chemicals, as well as buried salts and naturally occurring radioactive material. That wastewater needs to be treated, or buried deep in the earth using underground injection wells.


Proponents of fracking argue that the process has provided a major boost to the U.S. economy. The editorial board of USA Today wrote an editorial in favor of fracking in July 2015, summarizing the benefits cited by industry leaders:

Fracking now accounts for 56% of U.S. natural gas production and 48% of oil output, according to the Energy Information Administration. The boom has helped make America the world's No. 1 producer of oil and gas, and it has pushed the nation much closer to energy independence than almost anyone dared hope in the 1980s and 1990s.

Huge new natural gas supplies have helped lower prices, fuel a manufacturing turnaround and displace much dirtier coal in electricity production, cutting air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.


But environmental groups are skeptical of the benefits of fracking and see evidence of a plethora of problems with the process.  Among other things, environmentalists and residents who live near fracking operations charge that

  • The "fracking fluid" used in the process is toxic. While companies have refused to disclose what is in the fluid, testing has found that it includes hundreds of contaminants.
  • Fracking removes millions of gallons of fresh water from the water cycle. Each well uses 2-5 million gallons of fresh water, which is then permanently contaminated by ground contaminants and toxic chemicals contained in the fracking fluid.
  • The vast quantities of wastewater from fracking is injected deep underground in oil and gas waste wells, where it may cause problems, including groundwater contamination and earthquakes.
  • Fracking results in the release of methane and other greenhouse gases, pollution from truck traffic, chemical contamination around storage tanks, and logging and other disruption of natural areas.
  • The fracking boom has led to a major push to build additional gas and oil pipelines crisscrossing the country. These pipelines, which face growing local and national opposition, have their own environmental impact. They also represent a further investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, which encourages further extraction of fuels that disrupt our climate.


In a 2015 report entitled "Fracking Failures," the group PennEnvironment charges that oil and gas companies often flout safety rules, adding to the danger of fracking.

Oil and gas industry spokespeople routinely maintain that the risks of fracking can be minimized by best practices and appropriate state regulation. Not only is this false - fracking is harmful even when drillers follow all the rules - but drillers also regularly violate essential environmental and public health protections, undermining their own claims. A look at recent data from Pennsylvania, where key industry players pledged to clean up their acts, illustrates the frequency with which companies still break the rules.

In Pennsylvania, fracking companies violate rules and regulations meant to protect the environment and human health on virtually a daily basis. Between January 1, 2011, and August 31, 2014, the top 20 offending fracking companies committed an average of 1.5 violations per day. Fracking operators in Pennsylvania have committed thousands of violations of oil and gas regulations since 2011. These violations are not "paperwork" violations, but lapses that pose serious risks to workers, the environment and public health, including: allowing toxic chemicals to flow off drilling sites and into local soil and water... endangering drinking water through improper well construction... dumping industrial waste into local waterways... otherwise disposing of waste improperly.

One of the arguments in favor of fracking is that natural gas can be helpful in the fight against climate change because burning it releases half the carbon dioxide (CO2) than does burning oil and coal. Environmentalists, however, question this idea. They cite evidence of methane leaks at fracking wellpads and other natural gas infrastructure that are very harmful to the climate, since methane (CH4) is a potent "greenhouse gas." An incident at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in southern California in the fall of 2015 provided an example of a devastating leak connected with natural gas usage. As Andrew Freeman, journalist and science editor at Mashable noted in his December 24, 2015 article:

The environmental group Environmental Defense Fund, which emphasizes the need to eliminate methane leaks in order to reduce the climate impact of natural gas, says that the Aliso Canyon leak has amounted to about 62 million standard cubic feet of methane per day.

"That’s the same short-term greenhouse gas impact as the emissions from 7 million cars," the group says on its website....

As utilities have increasingly turned to natural gas as the country's main source of fuel for generating electricity, displacing coal, they often tout its climate benefits as a cleaner burning fuel. However, research shows that if leaks of methane, which is a more potent but shorter-acting climate pollutant compared to carbon dioxide, are not curtailed, the climate benefits of natural gas can be dramatically lessened or negated entirely.


Concerns like these have led more and more people to question whether fracking is the clean "bridge fuel" to renewable energy that the industry touts.  Perhaps it is a dangerous distraction from what climate activists say should be our top priorities: drastically reducing our energy consumption and switching to renewable energy alternatives, including solar and wind.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in these readings was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. What is "fracking?"
  1. What arguments do people make in favor of fracking? 
  2. What arguments do people make against fracking?
  3. What arguments do you find most compelling?  Why?
  1. Defenders of natural gas argue that it is a cleaner-burning fuel source than coal and so has an important place in the fight against climate change. But critics think that we are better off focusing on reducing energy consumption and on moving to renewable energy sources such as solar power. What do you think? Explain your position.



Reading 2:
The Political Debate About Fracking

Over the past decade, the use of fracking has expanded rapidly in the U.S. and abroad. As communities have experienced the direct impact of fracking, grassroots movements calling for more careful regulation of the practice, or even for outright bans on it, have expanded. In response, the industry has invested heavily in lobbying politicians to prevent bans and other regulations from passing.

Fracking is big business. Since 2000, fracking has expanded from only 23,000 wells in the U.S. to over 300,000, resulting in billions of dollars in revenues. Danny Chivers, a climate change researcher, wrote an article in April 2014 for the New Internationalist magazine about the influence of the fracking industry on U.S. regulatory politics:

According to Sourcewatch, pro-fracking lobbyists poured $239 million into the campaign coffers of U.S. political candidates between 1990 and 2011, and spent a further $726 million on lobbying from 2001 to 2011.

It seems to have been money well spent, with a major shale boom unfolding from 2006 to the present day.....

After each fracking operation, between 30 and 60 percent of the water flows back up to the surface where it is collected for disposal. This water contains the chemicals and sand that were added as part of the fracking process, and also metals, salt, and other minerals that transferred into the water while it was underground. In the U.S., much of this wastewater is simply pumped back into expired gas and oil wells, or dumped into waterways. It is not yet clear what will happen to this water elsewhere in the world where empty wells are not available, or where local environmental regulations require more responsible disposal. Meanwhile, the remaining 40 to 70 percent of the contaminated water is left underground at the fracking site. So with every well, millions of liters of freshwater are polluted and removed from the reach of humans—or ecosystems—for the foreseeable future.

Thousands of leaks and spills have been reported from fracking sites—the industry itself admitted to 1,000 incidents in one year in North Dakota alone. However, government and industry continue to write them off as unfortunate one-offs rather than inherent problems.

According to Kassie Siegel at the Center for Biological Diversity, a not-for-profit U.S. research and campaign group: "The regulators are under huge pressure from the industry not to investigate these problems—we saw this in Wyoming this year, when the Environmental Protection Agency abandoned its research into local pollution from fracking. Their results were showing fracking-related chemicals in nearby groundwater, which resulted in uproar from the industry—and now the EPA has dropped the study.


Given the expanding power of the fracking industry, many are skeptical about the ability of concerned citizens to challenge it. But environmental protests have won some key battles in recent years. As journalist Dylan Baddour wrote in February 2015 article for the Houston Chronicle:

Scotland banned fracking last week, implementing an indefinite moratorium while the government studies environmental and health impacts of the oil and gas extraction technique...

The nation joins a small but growing group of cities, counties, states and countries that have prohibited fracking, including some locations in the technique's Texas birthplace....

In the U.S., Texas is the largest oil producer. Fracking was born near the city of Denton, so it caused an upset when voters there outlawed the extraction technique last November. Industry voices protested and the state's oil and gas regulator contested Denton's authority to instate the ban, but it held.

... In December, New York became the first state to prohibit fracking, following a four-year statewide moratorium on the practice. Other U.S. regions to ban fracking include: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2010, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2012, Broadview Heights, Mansfield, Oberlin and Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 2012, Hawai'i County in 2013, Mora County, New Mexico in 2014, Beverly Hills, California, in 2014

Fracking is also currently prohibited in Germany, Northern Ireland, France and Bulgaria.

Recent bans on fracking, especially the ban in New York State, where protesters pressured a previously pro-industry Governor Cuomo to come out against fracking in December 2014, show that people concerned about the dangers of fracking are successfully spreading their message.

Activists have made fracking a visible issue in the 2016 presidential election, demanding that candidates support a ban on fracking.

The immense resources of the fracking industry ensure that this will be a long fight.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in these readings was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. Why are some people skeptical that environmentalists can successfully challenge the power of the fracking industry? What do you think about this argument?
  1. How do you think local communities that have been hurt by fracking could best respond? What actions might be effective?
  1. Based on the readings, do you think fracking is likely to continue to expand?  Why or why not?
  1. Some defenders of fracking might argue that, even if the practice has some negative environmental and health impacts, especially for those living closest to wells, it is an important source of jobs and meets a critical demand for energy from American consumers who are not interested in significantly restricting their patterns of consumption. What do you think of these arguments? How would you respond to them?



Extension Activities

1.  Ask students to research:

  • Are there any fracking operations in their area or state? Are there any pipelines or proposed pipelines for fracked gas or oil in their area?  
  • Is there opposition to these operations or projects? If so, what has the opposition said and done?

Have students report and discuss their findings.


2. Ask students to research the stance of the 2016 presidential candidates on fracking.

  • How do the candidates' stances differ?
  • Has there been any change in candidates’ positions as a result of efforts by anti-fracking activists?

Have students report and discuss their findings.



 - Research assistance provided by Lina Blount.