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A straightforward guide offers a nuanced look at unconventional fossil fuel extraction

The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution

Daniel Raimi
Columbia University Press
2017
280 pp.
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At a time when everything from an otherwise unremarkable scientific report to a seemingly innocuous news item can be subject to intense scrutiny and mistrust, The Fracking Debate, a balanced guide to the contentious discussion on fracking, is a welcome resource. Daniel Raimi has compiled several years’ worth of research, including conversations with key figures in the shale gas industry, experts in environmental science and law, state regulators, members of the public, and advocates on both sides of the debate. In an easy-to-read, conversational tone, he first describes the technical process of shale development, using a hypothetical company and helpful illustrations to describe the complete cycle of well development from site selection to active production. Then he takes the reader through the history of unconventional fossil fuel extraction technology.

Uncertainty is a central theme in the fracking debate. Even the very terminology used to describe the process of unconventional oil and gas extraction is contentious. The term “fracking” correctly refers only to hydraulic fracturing or the breaking of shale rock—just one step in the process’s many stages. But the term is often used to denote the entire process, and often further complicates a convoluted issue, especially when it is used to refer to contamination of water by fracking.

Raimi devotes a chapter to each of the sticky questions that form the core of the fracking debate, providing nuanced analyses of cases using both scientific data and anecdotes. “Does fracking contaminate water?” he asks, for example. He then discusses the “flaming faucets” phenomenon, famously highlighted in the 2010 documentary Gasland. The technical explanation for how this can happen is that “stray gas” can migrate through improperly constructed wells up to the surface, he reveals. After enough pressure builds, it can seep into the water supply.

There is also considerable uncertainty surrounding the potential health effects of fracking. Anecdotes and available scientific research show that emissions from well sites may lead to respiratory irritation and endocrine disruption that might cause developmental or neurological harm with exposure over months or years. But increased use of natural gas has reduced dependence on coal, and the health benefits associated with this change must also be taken into account.

Raimi discusses how fracking is regulated predominantly through state governments, meaning that regulation and enforcement are variable. He then asks: “Is fracking good or bad for climate change?” His answer is nuanced. Methane gas, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, may leak, and these methane emissions are difficult to measure. But Raimi asserts that we must also take into account the potential climate benefits of gas replacing coal, because natural gas burns “cleaner” than coal, with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

As for the economic impacts of the shale revolution, although fracking has spurred economic growth and jobs, the volatile nature of oil and gas prices makes communities that rely on this industry vulnerable to financial instability. Oil and gas production, therefore, is not an economic panacea, as some have tried to argue.

EYE UBIQUITOUS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A fracking site looms near a water source on the edge of the Bakken Shale play in southern Alberta, Canada.

Turning his attention to those who live near production facilities, Raimi reveals that “stories of people living through the booms and busts are rarely simple.” He has talked to some who have praised the shale revolution and the economic restoration it has brought to regions that had been in economic decline, but others describe increased crime and traffic and an uneasiness about the changes that have come with the arrival of this new industry and new workers.

Raimi acknowledges that even during the writing of this book, many of the technologies, markets, and policies surrounding shale extraction have shifted in unexpected ways. For example, oil prices dropped dramatically between August 2014 and February 2016, leading to uncertainty about how the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would respond. Shale gas prices, too, dropped dramatically, leading producers to develop technologies to maximize production, including longer horizontal drilling and mobile drilling rigs that can move from site to site without being disassembled.

The future will likely bring more change. However, the lessons learned in this book can be applied to future developments and changes as they occur.

Issues such as market volatility, the rapid pace of the shale revolution, and breakthroughs in technology, as well as the decisions made by the current U.S. administration, are all key sources of potential change in a contested issue already fraught with uncertainty. Raimi concludes that, despite these unknowns, we must be willing to listen to the opposition and to compromise on “thorny and complex trade-offs.”

About the author

The reviewer is at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK.