As you’ve probably noticed, the extraction of liquefied natural gas (LNG), through hydraulic fracturing has become an emotionally- and politically charged-issue. Environmentalists, conservationists, and concerned citizens have vocally opposed the process of fracking, which they fear will worsen global warming, contaminate groundwater, and even cause minor earthquakes. The picture presented has been almost unanimously negative, and occasionally apocalyptic. This has been reinforced by the passionate activists we have here at Mount Allison, who have taken up arms against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick. But how bad is fracking, really?
First, let’s start off with what we don’t know. Contrary to what many would have you believe, we do not know that fracking causes groundwater contamination. Studies up to this point have not produced any conclusive findings. Strong correlation between fracking and groundwater contamination has been limited primarily to one fracking location in Pennsylvania. Given the role of local geology on the fracking process, possible contamination in one location does not imply that it would happen in all instances. Many hundreds of thousands of fracked wells have operated without incident, but you don’t hear about those ones in the news. The truth is, there is a lot of evidence and testimonial suggesting that the threat of contaminated aquifers is marginal at worst. Just because a thing can be botched doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted in the first place.
Here’s the second big thing we do not know: Fracking is bad for the environment. And yes, I have heard of climate change, and yes, I definitely think it is happening. However, it is very likely that fracking won’t accelerate it noticeably. One thing that people seem to forget about our world is that there is an inflexible demand for energy, especially the cheap kind. The simple truth is that fossil fuels are going to keep getting burned for energy until a cheaper alternative presents itself. And right now, the alternative to cheap LNG from Canada’s shale deposits are either more fossil fuels from somewhere else, or coal. And burning coal, as you probably know, is filthy. Some argue that the proliferation of fracking and LNG has the potential to decrease coal usage and improve greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Admittedly, there is still a lot of information yet to be gathered on this contentious topic, and there is no ironclad confirmation of this claim. But the mere fact that it is possible should have a sobering effect on the anti-fracking movement.
Another common argument made against fracking is that the production of LNG hamstrings the development of viable renewable energy options. However, at this point, no viable renewable energy alternative exists, and the demand for energy must be met, one way or another. This means that there needs to be energy from another source, such as fossil fuels. The only question is where these fuels should come from. Setting the national interest of Canada aside for a moment, consider where the profits from fossil fuel extraction will go in each situation. The Canadian government is currently invested in research and development in the renewable energy sector, so at least some of the profits from fracking will go towards green initiatives. However, if countries like Saudi Arabia were tasked with meeting energy global demands, the environmental impact would be roughly the same, and the profits would be far less likely to be reinvested into environmental protection. Additionally, Canada is a relatively democratic country, where activism is more likely to produce increasingly favourable government policy in the future.
The environmental impacts, both local and global, of fracking are still unclear, although the majority of evidence points towards its safety and relatively low environmental impact when compared to the alternatives. I do not mean to suggest that fracking is harmless, or that it should proceed without regulation. However, I do think that the anti-fracking movement presents a very biased picture that misrepresents some facts about franking and totally ignores others. Obstructionism should be replaced by caution. Passion should be replaced with reason. And we should always be open to new information as it becomes available.
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