Debate Forum: 07/14

Forum Center: Hit the road, frack

New York bans controversial practice

By Sarah Sidlow

To frack, or not to frack? For some time, that has been the question. Questions also include: what the frack is fracking?

Fracking—high-volume hydraulic fracturing for those keeping score at home—involves blasting huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals (dubbed by some as “secret sauce”—and it’s not grandma’s) deep into underground rock formations for the purpose of accessing that oh-so-important oil and natural gas.

While the end result is a form of alternative energy, the controversial practice is so divisive because it has harmful environmental implications: air pollution, earthquakes and a questionable water supply.

In New York, the tribe has spoken. Fracking has been voted off the island—for now at least.

That’s right, after more than seven years of study, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released a 1,448-page report on fracking. The Sparknotes version, from DEC Commissioner Joe Martens is this: banning the practice is “the only reasonable alternative.”

While New York’s anti-fracking ideological statement is powerful, scientists claim it won’t have much of an impact on our country’s natural gas supply, because New York’s available reserves in the Marcellus Shale are tiny compared to what can be extracted in other states (hello, West Virginia).

The potential benefits and risks of fracking have been discussed at length. But here’s a short recap: Opponents of fracking cite the practice’s hefty consumption of water (something that is especially pressing given the fact that much of the U.S. is suffering from drought), the risk of health threats given the volatile organic compounds and air toxins found around fracking sites, and the contamination of groundwater (research has shown that between 10 and 40 percent of the chemical mixture injected into the ground during fracking flows back to the surface during well development) as reasons to “just say no.”

But proponents of fracking claim they’re in it for the long game. Basically, once we have the natural gas, we can cut our dependence on coal or nuclear fuel to generate electricity.

In the long run, they say, using natural gas will actually end up saving water. Moreover, replacing coal with natural gas benefits air quality—because there are lower carbon dioxide emissions and almost none of the mercury, sulfur dioxide or ash that are present when burning coal.

Of course, questions still exist regarding the fracking process. The biggie? Global climate change. It is yet undetermined what role fracking’s resulting toxins may play in greenhouse gas effect.

New York’s fracking ban is not permanent, and it’s possible it could be rescinded. Both sides of the fracking debate say they expect lawsuits to be filed. Opponents of this fracking ban have until October 27 to challenge. Your move.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at


Debate Forum Question of the Week:

New York just banned fracking. Should Ohio be next?


Debate Left: The F-Word

Response By Ben Tomkins

Fracking is the performance enhancing drug of the oil industry. It fires water and sand into a deep borehole in order to create vertical fissures in highly compacted rocks that in turn release trapped oil and natural gas. Then they can sell it to you, and the only thing it costs you besides your hard-earned cash is your conscience.

So of course it’s safe: corporations make money, and also allow you to monetize something you don’t need anyway. That is the American way, and processes like fracking will continue on until either enough people who would prefer to find a grown-up solution to our energy problems congregate at the voting booths, or something happens that makes it more expensive to frack than it does to do something else. I would say this will likely come in the form of a large portion of the state caving into the ground as a massive sinkhole, but considering how easily BP blew off the oil spill disaster in the Gulf, I think it’s highly unlikely that would do the job unless it was Kettering.

If that doesn’t get you, then the increased methane, heavy metals, and other sludge that ends up in the water supply probably will. Again, once Kettering’s water starts to taste weird…

That being said, fracking is a logical extension of the energy choices we’ve stuck with well beyond their shelf-life. We are tightly wedded to one of our first and easiest solutions for the need for long-term energy, and to be fair it was a good first try. The only problem is that, like so many other solutions we’ve come up with, the earliest ones are usually some of the worst. Oil is literally not sustainable, and I’m neither pretending like this is news nor suggesting it isn’t quantifiable. However, if you don’t want to believe me you have the wiggle room to get away with lying to yourself the same way all of our predecessors have. You’ll die before we run out so you can pretend it’s forever, and the worst you’ll have to deal with is no polar bears and higher air conditioning costs due to global warming about which you will probably be complaining like a little child. Therefore, in many ways fracking is the archetype of our cultural mindset.

In a capitalistic society such as ours, every rational process becomes useful only insofar as it can be used to make money. It’s like a prism for ideas. For instance, one would generally consider foresight a good thing. However, in a capitalistic society, foresight is utile only as an intellectual tool for figuring out what the next big trend or industry is going to be—never as a barrier to available sources of cash that may have negative ramifications one hundred years from now. It’s the birth of politics in a nutshell.

If you take a look at the fracking description on, it becomes painfully obvious that companies that frack know that what they are doing is ridiculously bad for the environment. As a matter of fact, you only need to read the first two sentences of the page entitled “How Fracking Works”:

“In a hydraulic fracturing job, ’fracturing fluids’ or ’pumping fluids’ consisting primarily of water and sand are injected under high pressure into the producing formation, creating fissures that allow resources to move freely from rock pores where it is trapped.

Typically, steel pipe known as surface casing is cemented into place at the uppermost portion of a well for the explicit purpose of protecting the groundwater.”

Right away, major red flag. The whole point of this section is supposed to be an explanation of how you use water and sand to break up rock a billion miles underground so you can get your hands on fossil fuels. Frankly, even though I think it’s horrible for the environment, it’s still a fascinating and intricate process. However, for some reason they seem to think that the most important thing to talk about is how fracking isn’t bad for the water supply.

That means that the authors of know darn well they aren’t selling the products that come from fracking—they are trying to convince you to let them keep fracking despite the environmental disaster.

The one gigantic advantage they have is that fracking takes place underground where nobody can actually see what’s going on. Like horse meat in a Tesco sausage, once the fracking products are mixed in with all of your other fossil fuels, a person living in the suburbs in Columbus can’t tell what came from where anyway. If your water starts to taste funny or earthquakes seem slightly more frequent, there are a million alternative excuses that can be easily forwarded by fracking companies that will be just good enough for you to forget all about it and go back to your football game. It’s the same techniques fossil fuel companies have been using to blow off global warming for years, so our radars should be flipping out when we read those first few sentences I mentioned above.

Fracking is nothing more than a dirty piece of duct tape we’re wrapping around a leaky heart valve. All it’s going to do is jack up our future pain and expense when we finally have to get a transplant.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at


Debate Right: Another progressive knee-jerk idea

Response By Mike Snead

Any progressive Ohio politician who thinks it’s a good idea to follow New York’s lead in banning fracking should spend the next week taking cold showers—literally. Fracking is safe, better for the environment than other fossil fuel recovery methods, improves our national energy security, is undertaken by a high-paying industry where the employees generally don’t require a college education and produces low-cost energy needed to heat our homes, heat our hot water, cook our meals, produce plastics and, increasingly, generate electricity. The political incorrectness of the progressive ideological opposition to real progress is astounding and their general opposition to fracking for natural gas and oil is an excellent example of why.

Progress is plainly defined as an improvement in a society’s standard of living. Where, recently, have we seen any examples of “progressive” politicians working to improve our standard of living through efforts promoting personal hard work, responsibility and creativity operating within a free market such as seen the oil and gas fracking industry? Nothing comes to mind, does it? In fact, for the past generation or more, the rise of the progressive political movement has come at the expense of a falling standard of living and substantially rising local, state and national debt. Now, with their incoherent attempts to ban fracking, they would increase our national energy insecurity—repeat, insecurity—as well.

Is the United States’ energy secure today? No. We have not been since 1970 when domestic oil production peaked and we will not become energy secure again until we complete our transition to sustainable energy sources under our national control. What fracking has done is, for perhaps a generation or more, decrease the amount of oil and natural gas America must import to sustain our standard of living while we transition to sustainable energy. Fracking will not increase the amount of fossil fuels we consume per person, but it will make the supply of these fossil fuels more secure. This improved energy security means fewer chances of being forced to engage in foreign oil wars as a matter of national necessity. Improved security also means lower energy prices than our trade competitors meaning greater job growth and economic prosperity at home. Common sense, right? Then why are progressive politicians opposed to fracking?

Studying America’s energy security situation has made me quite aware that most politicians have little or no understanding of the concept of national energy security. To be blunt, there is no liberty without energy security. In our modern society, energy security is right up there with water and food security, shelter and personal security as necessities of life. Our modern world would cease to function without the electricity and fuels that are the lifeblood of our technological world. About 70 percent of U.S. electricity comes from fossil fuels, as do all of our transportation fuels. Overall, fossil fuels provide about 85 percent of the energy Americans consume. Yet, America still only produces about 70 percent of the fossil fuels we consume. We are not energy secure today and banning fracking will make this worse.

Most people understand that fossil fuels are non-renewable energy sources but they really don’t grasp what that means. Fossil fuels are carbon deposits from plants and single-cell organisms buried and then trapped underground tens and hundreds of millions of years ago. Over eons, heat and pressure compressed the organic material. Coal was one result. Another was a layer of rock-like organic material called shale. Over time, most of the oil and natural gas that we use was formed in these shale formations. Being lighter than water, some of the oil and gas escaped upwards to be trapped in overlying porous rock and sand formations that are tapped using traditional drilling. While there is still oil and gas trapped in these deep shale layers, it cannot be recovered using conventional vertical drilling methods.

Fracking combines two new technologies—directional drilling and hydraulic rock fracturing. Smart drills are used to, first, drill vertically and, then, to turn to drill a mile or more horizontally into the layer of shale holding trapped oil and gas. The drill is then removed and water is pumped into the drill bore. When the water is pressurized, the surrounding rock fractures. Sand entrained in the water moves into the cracks so that when the pressure is removed the cracks stay open. Trapped gas and oil then have a path to escape into the drill bore and up the well. The water is recovered and processed with, as the EPA noted, few instances of contaminating drinking water despite tens of thousands of wells being fracked.

Fracking is a blessing because it gives us needed time to get our political act back on a sound footing and set the nation on a course of achieving practical sustainable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. However, it is important to understand that by 2100 the U.S. population will likely more than double to over 600 million—meaning our energy needs will also about double. Does any reasonable person think wind farms and ground solar farms or ground nuclear power plants will be able to meet this need?


Mike Snead is a professional aerospace engineer focused on advanced human spaceflight and energy systems. You can reach him at

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