Frack to the Future

Is a drop in carbon emissions worth the risk?

By Nick Sorrentino

Future 500 was pleased to convene a panel at this year’s COMMIT!Forum entitled Groundbreaking: The Risks and Opportunities of Hydraulic Fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing is the breaking up of rock through the use of pressurized liquid. Although fractures can happen naturally, induced hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracturing (commonly known as fracking) is a technique in which water is mixed with sand and chemicals, and the mixture is injected at high pressure into a wellbore to create small fractures (we’re talking less than one millimeter), along which gas and brine water can migrate to the well.

As director of political outreach for Future 500, I had succeeded in drawing together an experienced assemblage of thought leaders: Tisha Conoly Schuller, president & chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, Dr. Richard Liroff, founder and executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network, and Alan Krupnick, senior fellow and director of the Center for Energy Economics and Policy at Resources for the Future.

In front of an audience of 250 executives and leaders from across industry and the NGO world, the panel discussed “fracking” in America. It was a wide-ranging discussion, touching on issues from the potential for groundwater contamination to the increase in road accidents around fracking sites as a result of increased truck traffic.

There was no debate on one point: It was agreed that fracking had fundamentally changed the energy landscape, both in the United States and worldwide. The point was made that carbon emissions have been in stark decline in the United States due to the natural gas revolution that has occurred over the course of the last three years. In fact, though this is not widely known, the reality is that declines are so dramatic that currently the U.S. is back to 1992 levels of emissions. Fracking was indisputably the main driver of this development.

Fracking has also enabled something thought of as nothing but a dream just a few years ago: true energy independence. But this was an intellectually honest bunch, and they took on the question of the cost of this independence head on.

Was fracking and inexpensive natural gas undermining efforts toward renewable energy sources? The consensus was that to some degree it was having precisely that effect. Notwithstanding that reality—indeed because of it—the speakers agreed that natural gas should be thought of as a “bridge fuel” that can be used while we evolve toward even cleaner sources of energy. Under that assumption, efforts toward zero emission energy sources need not be abandoned.

In essence, hydraulic fracturing constitutes an opportunity and a challenge to the U.S.—and to the world at large. The process is not an isolated phehomenon. Indeed, it is spreading across the globe. China might well have more natural gas than we do. The United Kingdom just stumbled upon a huge cache of its own. All of which was made accessible by fracking, and these countries are in the process of tapping these resources.

Does this mean lower carbon emissions will soon be the norm around the globe? Possibly. Does this also mean, however, that worldwide groundwater will be further contaminated as carbon emissions go down? Possibly. Is it worth it?


What’s clear is that fracking advocates, skeptics, and outright opponents are all eagerly awaiting more research. Ideally, this would lead to consensus on the technology’s environmental and health impacts. “Bridge fuel” proponents are eager to further validate emission reduction claims, just as they want to demonstrate how best practices can reduce water and community risks. Meanwhile, many activist groups are concerned that industry secrecy and abandoned government studies are concealing fracking’s true impacts.

However, we go forward will be determined by the marketplace and civic engagement. Future 500 is proud to have facilitated some of that engagement at this year’s COMMIT!Forum. In the meantime, we’ll be exploring new opportunities to expand stakeholder understanding around this critical energy issue.

 Nick Sorrentino is director of political outreach for Future 500.
Posted December 13, 2013 in 25115