Fracking & U.S. Energy Policy



Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a controversial method of extracting previously unavailable oil and gas reserves from the ground by fracturing rock by injecting pressurized fluids.  Proponents claim that it opens up vast amounts of natural gas within the U.S. and could play a key role in the United States gaining energy independence within the not too distant future.  Opponents claim that the chemicals used in fracking represent a significant environmental risk to ground water and other elements of the environment.  Join Active Minds as we explore the risks and benefits of fracking and put it into the broader context of U.S. Energy Policy.

Key Lecture Points

  • Fracking (shorthand for hydraulic fracturing) involves the injection of a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into deep wells at very high pressure. The hydraulic pressure creates small fractures deep underground that allow material to be extracted that otherwise would not have been accessible. Recent technological advances in fracking, combined with drilling technology that permits horizontal drilling more than a mile underground have led to a boom in energy extraction in the US. While the fracking can be applied to the extraction of any material (underground), the term fracking has come to refer to the use of the entire process, from drilling to hydraulic fracturing to waste removal. Additionally, the politics of fracking have come to focus on the use of the technique to extract natural gas from deep shale beds in the US.
  • President Obama has suggested that Natural Gas should serve as a “transition fuel” as the United States works its way toward greater energy independence. Since natural gas is abundant in the United States and produces less carbon dioxide than coal, there are many who agree with him; however, there are others who argue that it is still a non-renewable fossil fuel and therefore problematic, and that too much reliance on natural gas will slow progress toward the use of more renewable technologies and greater conservation of resources.
  • Shale gas fracking advocates argue that the technique provides Americans with an inexpensive domestic energy source, one that boosts the economy and creates jobs domestically in many places hard-hit by the recent recession. Additionally, they argue that shale gas production will help wean the nation off of a dependence on foreign oil.
  • Fracking opponents argue that the negative environmental impacts of the process outweigh the benefits touted by advocates. They point to the way in which the process affects adversely water availability and quality, as well as air quality in the many areas where it has become prevalent in the last 10 years.

Exploration Questions

  • What have been the major drivers of the increased use of fracking in the US in the last 10 years?
  • What are the arguments in favor of the use of fracking for the extraction of natural gas? In opposition?

Reflective Questions

  • If you owned a farm in rural Pennsylvania and were approached by a gas well developer for the right to drill on your property, would you consider the offer? Why or why not?
  • How has the cost of energy affected you in your lifetime?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Wilber, Tom. Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. Cornell Univesity Press, 2012. 280 pages. Wilber's evenhanded treatment gives a voice to all constituencies, including farmers and landowners tempted by the prospects of wealth but wary of the consequences, policymakers struggling with divisive issues, and activists coordinating campaigns based on their respective visions of economic salvation and environmental ruin.
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  • Mcgraw, Seamus. The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone. Random House, 2012. 256 pages. McGraw presents a rich history of the economics and geopolitics of energy as well as a fascinating cast of characters. This is an engaging look at how energy policy affected a quiet, rural town.
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