Frack You: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Fracking Controversy in Texas

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a relatively new process for extracting natural gas or oil that is tightly bound in deep geological formations. The process involves injecting water, chemicals, and sand, called fracking fluid, into a formation at high pressure. The resulting fissures in the formation allow gas or oil to flow into the well. It is claimed that it creates a slew of environmental hazards including surface water contamination and even earthquakes. Fracking, however, is a tremendous economic boom to once economically-depressed areas of Texas and Oklahoma.

Is this economic renewal sufficient to outweigh the alleged environmental concerns? Texas is the key state in this debate, and it reminds seasoned observers of the snail darter debacle, which held up the construction of the billion-dollar Tellico Dam project for two years on the grounds that this small obscure fish was allegedly endangered by the dam project. The snail darter was transformed into both an icon for species the environmental movement.

As Joni Mitchell said in the Big Yellow Taxi, “Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now, give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees.” The point of this essay is that fracking, with all its alleged environmental maladies, will only put spots on the apple of American society.

Since fracking uses horizontal not just vertical drilling, there is some fear of gas seepage into the water table. In Texas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) charged the Range Production Company with causing contamination of several private water wells in Parker County. Ultimately, the reviewing agency (here, the Texas Railroad Commission) held that Range’s hydraulic fracturing operations did not pose a threat to human health and safety.

For the most part, states control their own fracking, which makes a lot of sense since each state’s shale deposit is geographically different. However, because of environmental concerns, coupled with the fact that fracking is a highly lucrative proposition with almost unlimited economic potential, the federal government, by way of the EPA, initiated regulations through a methodical approach that will ultimately greatly assist the states in creating a unified regulatory mechanism. Their motto appears to be, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The EPA’s plan is two stepped with the first step stipulating that new fractured wells, drilled after August 23, 2011, must reduce their allegedly toxic sions volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions; and the second step, effective January 1, 2015, mandates that fracking operators must capture the gas and make it available for sale or reuse.8 Green, baby, green!

Photo Credit: notanalternative / Foter / CC BY-NC