The Green Space | What the Frack?

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

In his Aug. 31 speech in Pittsburgh, Joe Biden attempted to clarify his position on an issue near and dear to the heartland of Pennsylvania.

“I am not banning fracking,” he said. “Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”

Though Biden was courteous enough to repeat his central stance twice, I was still left confused as to why a presidential candidate with an ambitious $2 trillion plan to decrease dependency on coal and natural gas would state so unequivocally his support for an industry that seems to be stuck in the fossil-fueled past. So, in an effort to reconcile these two purported policies, I decided to peer down the metaphorical fracking well — and here’s what I found.

Hydraulic fracturing, better known by the slightly inappropriate-sounding nickname “fracking” — coined by fracking companies themselves, by the way — is the process through which natural gas is extracted from Marcellus Shale, an extensive underground rock formation stretching across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. To reach the natural gas stored within the shale, the companies first drill straight down about 5,000 to 9,000 feet to reach the shale, then drill horizontally about 10,000 feet through the rock formation itself.

Once the drilling is complete, a perforating gun sets off tiny explosions at specified intervals along the horizontal portion of the well to create small holes in the well casing, and the shale right next to it. Then, highly pressurized fracking fluid — water mixed with sand and various chemicals — journeys down into the earth, where it seeps into the holes and forces the shale to crack wide open, releasing the gas stored within the rock.


As you might be able to imagine, several problems have the potential to arise during this process. Fracking fluid already contains toxic chemicals — acids to dissolve any pesky clots of mud, surfactants to smooth the way, biocides to murder microbes — but it can also pick up naturally occurring radioactive materials, heavy metals and any number of other alarming substances. It is common practice to inject this wastewater into the ground once it has served its purpose, occasionally leading to small earthquakes, but worse is when companies dispose of the noxious stuff in unlined pits, where it can easily seep into the water table.

Even though natural gas is a cleaner source of energy than coal and gasoline, emitting 50% to 60% less carbon dioxide when burned in a power plant and 15% to 20% less heat-trapping gas when used to fuel vehicles, this positive impact could be negated by the release of methane during the hydrofracking process. Methane, though it doesn’t stick around in the atmosphere as long as CO2, is 34 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, and 86 times more effective over a 20-year period. Methane released during fracking can also leak into water sources, contributing further to drinking water contamination.

Fortunately, companies can often capture at least some methane at the drilling site, though much still escapes into the atmosphere. Robert Howarth, an ecology professor at Cornell University, has estimated that one-third of the global increase in methane over the past year can be attributed to shale gas and oil drilling in North America. Unfortunately, because of the Trump administration’s recent rollback of Obama-era regulations on methane emissions, this proportion is only likely to rise.

Methane is not the only pollutant released by fracking operations. The entire process kicks up a myriad of toxic substances into the air, such as benzene and formaldehyde, that have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems, cardiovascular damage and cancer. Studies have traced health concerns in nearby communities back to fracking, including increased risk of asthma and a higher chance of birth defects. To make matters even worse, fracking wells are often adjacent to impoverished communities who may not have access to proper healthcare.

Luckily, a solution is within grasp. If we bear in mind the ever-cheapening cost and ever-increasing efficiency of renewable energy alternatives, it would be quite plausible to gradually phase out fracking while simultaneously supporting the renewable energy sector through subsidies and tax breaks. Considering that Pennsylvania already hands out generous subsidies to gas and petrochemical companies — and the fracking industry is even still teetering on the brink of financial ruin thanks to the pandemic — it would frankly be wiser to look to the future instead of clinging so tenaciously to the past.

Regardless of this clear path forward, the reason Biden came out in favor of the industry is quite simple, actually — it produces oodles and oodles of jobs, and Biden desperately needs those employed by fracking companies in Pennsylvania to vote for him. 

His actual policy on fracking is indeed as weak as he claims. Though he would not allow any new fracking operations on federal lands, new operations could open on private lands, and he would not shutter those wells already in use on federal lands. Because most fracking occurs on private land anyway, Biden would essentially hand the reins to fracking companies.

The reason I’m so disappointed in Biden’s stance here is not because fracking sucks (even though it does). His refusal to denounce fracking indicates more broadly a total lack of foresight on both sides of the aisle, a blindness to the overwhelming threat posed by global warming, a prioritization of the economy over the health and wellbeing of the American people. The environmental issues that result from both fracking itself and the continued use of fossil fuels it enables are radical problems that require radical solutions. When it comes to the environment, Biden should not be flip-flopping across the aisle. He needs to have a concrete plan to phase in renewable energy and provide jobs for those who still work in the fossil fuel industry — and that plan must include a ban on fracking.