Many people have heard of fracking and the controversy that surrounds it, but few know what it actually means, or what the environmental cost is. Fracking is a word that has a lot of politics behind it, and triggers a lot of immediate reactions, but many people do not even understand what it is.
Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, but burns cleaner than coal or petroleum. Natural gas is used in many domestic and commercial applications. It is composed of simple hydrocarbons, mostly made up of methane. It is traditionally mined from gas fields using wells, but a large amount of gas trapped in shale formations cannot be mined in this way. Fracking allows that gas to be mined. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, works by injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and proppant (solid material used to keep fractures open) into the shale, causing the shale to fracture and release the gas.
Fracking is a new way of mining natural gas, and there has been little time to see what long term negative effects it has on the environment. There are several specific concerns about fracking’s environmental impact. Fracking uses an estimated 70 to 140 billion gallons of water each year. This raises concerns about the impact on drinking water resources and the effect on aquatic ecosystems. Proppant used in the fracking, usually silicone based sand, needs to be mined, and can contaminate groundwater. Various chemicals are also added to the fracking fluid, some of which have very serious health consequences. Pollution from the fracking fluid can seep into drinking water reserves and aquatic ecosystems, threatening both natural and human health. The concerns about fracking are not just theoretical. There are multipleexamples of spills like this occurring. In addition to the spills, there is a worrying lack of accountability, with gas companies failing to report the spills to the government.
In the article titled, “Preserving Ancient Art In Land Marked For Solar Energy Development” by Jeremy Miller, we get a look at the dangers that come along with the benefits of the new fracking industry that has boomed in the US. Cheaper oil and energy seems to be a good thing, but there are prices to pay, including increased carbon in the atmosphere, which only speeds up climate change. In fact, Figure 1 shows a chart of all the amounts of carbon dioxide emissions by the United States alone. (2) As you could have guessed from Figure 1, carbon dioxide is the most popular greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere by humans, harming the environment.
Alternatives would give us a brighter future, but they also come with problems. One example is the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, almost operational on the southern border between California and Nevada. This will be one of the larges utility facilities in the United States, “supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours.” (1) This means 400 million joules of electrical energy every second. Compared with fracking, and the damaging pollution that it brings, an array of solar panels seems like a great idea. However, a whole list of issues has come up in the recent months while the solar panels were being installed. For example, the air around an active solar panel becomes heated. A large array of panels can create a “solar flux” (1), which is a pocket of super heated air that could rise and kill birds. This utility is built in the remote Mojave Desert, and may be endangering a rare species of desert land tortoise. This article shows that there is no easy answer to our energy needs. Even though peak energy consumption dropped off slightly after the 2008 recession, our country still needs to find clean, new, and efficient sources of energy that will have minimal impact on the environment.
I always assumed that solar energy was good, and I was surprised at how many problems were arising from one energy plant. Another one that really struck me was the cultural impact: the land contains some ancient rock art from early Aztec people. Now the archeology is endangered. The descendants of those first natives still live in the area, but their communities are cut across by the array, and some of their native languages, which are only spoken by a handful of people today, are also now endangered by the solar panels. The result is that any new source of energy comes with problems, and these problems and issues need to be weighed against each other.