Thursday, November 29, 2012

4 Reasons to Ban Fracking

Denton is approaching a decision point on fracking. What is the right thing to do? We can go forward with the ordinance as it has taken shape over the past several months. We can push for more to be included in it. Or we can call for a ban on fracking.

Other municipalities have taken the latter route but I had not seen a good argument to justify a ban. So, I asked readers of this blog to help me think through the question: Should Denton ban fracking? The comments have been very helpful. At least four arguments seem to be emerging:

Argument 1: Unique risk -- Fracking poses an unacceptable risk
Fracking is risky in a way that other industrial activities are not and that justifies a ban where those other activities can be adequately regulated. What is this unique kind of risk?

It is the risk of an irreversible, high-magnitude catastrophe, namely, the poisoning of vast zones of ground water. When an activity poses a catastrophic risk, we should have definitive proof that harm will not result. That proof is lacking: we do not know the long term fate of chemical compounds that remain underground. Indeed, we do not even know what the compounds are – we only know their ingredients. And, thanks to non-disclosure agreements, we don’t know much about harms that have occurred. This means that fracking is not so much an unacceptable risk (a known probability of harm) as an unacceptable uncertainty (an unknown probability of harm). Due to over-sized corporate influences on the way decisions are made, we don’t even know what the odds are of causing a catastrophe. One should not act under ignorance when the stakes are so high.

Argument 2: Unique exposure -- Fracking is an incompatible use
Fracking is dispersed in a way that other industrial activities are not. Other industries must occur only in the proper zoning districts, but fracking occurs wherever the minerals happen to be. This constitutes a unique exposure to harms such as air pollution, noise, explosion hazards, and declining property values. These harms to neighbors justify imposing limits on property rights. This is an argument for zoning classification, which would essentially ban fracking from all places but those zoned industrial.

Argument 3: Unique exemptions -- Fracking owes its existence to loopholes
Fracking is only currently legal because it is uniquely exempted from several pieces of environmental legislation. This allows the fracking industry to operate in ways that would be illegal for other industries. Here, the case for a ban is that fracking would be prohibited by the federal government according to its own standards if it had not (for unjustifiable reasons) made an exception for it. To ban fracking, then, is simply to restore consistency to the law of the land.

Argument 4: Unique time on Earth -- Fracking is the wrong direction
Here we must shift our framework. The preceding three arguments operate from within the assumed parameters of a growth-oriented economy. But from this perspective it is that framework that is the problem. Fracking is an instance of a much larger problem of unsustainable growth, pollution, and resource exploitation. The planet is imperiled and we are irresponsibly burdening future generations with the consequences of our decisions.

I think about my daughters in 25 years asking me how my generation could have looked at so much evidence of environmental degradation and continued with the status quo – indeed, worse, how we actually intensified our addiction to fossil fuels by going to such costly lengths to extract the last drops (removing mountaintops, scalping boreal forests, drilling in backyards).

Admittedly it seems far-fetched to call for a ban on fracking as part of an overarching sea-change in the way we live and the way we organize society. But when are we going to make that change? Who is going to make it? It has to start somewhere – why not Denton?

As always, I remain open to refinements and rebuttals. I hope that this helps to spur further critical thinking about a crucial issue facing Denton and the wider world.  


  1. As Obama has promised, we as a nation want to become energy selfsuffient. Fracting has come in under his radar as the answer. Unlimited natural gas is the key.

    What most people do not understand is that current drilling techniques allow not only deeper wells, but directional drilling (several wells drilled from one location). This is call called "directional drilling".

    Current and future drilling must be controlled to not only limit the postitioning of these wells, mud pits and noise (of drilling and future production, storage and transmission). Further, the deeper production strata should not interfere directlty or indirectly with aquifers or other environmental concerns

  2. I agree with the concerns posted. As a citizen of Denton, I absolutely want a ban on fracking. Our water supply is precious, and we simply don't know enough to take such a high risk. I know when I drive by a large pool with a black plastic liner that there are chemicals they do not want leeched into our water supply. If there weren't a lot of money to be profited, they would slow down and make sure that the consequences would not be harmful. We do not have to allow fracking. We can say "no, this is not a chance we are willing to take.". Denton has made remarkable decisions in the past such as when we became the first to harness methane from our landfills to power our solid waste trucks. We can make another wise decision and ban fracking.

  3. Day by day a little more in the DRC. Complaints about little input from citizens! Sounds like the clarlity of the new health care issue: none, closed doors. Too much "fluff" and the mess now dumped on the City Council. Now it's a shotgun approach to hiring more lawyers and filling their pockets (what a ripoff of our funds).

    Back to the basics: whether fracking and drilling are the right things to do below Denton, we must support natural gas as an energy supply of the future. There are safe ways to proceed. Get focused. This is not a bouncing uninformed football. Lawyers love to charge $350-$400 an hour and to start fresh (re-invent the wheel). What is to be learned from other communities faced with the same challenges? What can be learned from the companies that develop and support the recovery techniques. Perhaps Devon, National Supply/Oilwell/Varco, Haliburton,.. more could advise us from the other side.

  4. I’m understanding ban to mean zero gas production, not only within city limits, but also outside. This kind of ban is what I don’t think we should pursue in favor of increasing regulations, and I really think some of the restrictions suggested in the talking points and also this post should be no-brainers. The industry says they don’t have the money to incur more regulations, specifically CERCLA, but I think we all know there’s plenty of money in oil (though perhaps smaller, less profitable, drilling companies should receive subsidies to help handle regulations). Though to reiterate, I do support fracking as a viable energy, one that should give us a cushion as we transition to renewables. So here’s a response to each argument.

    Argument 1: Does fracking really pose an irrevocable threat of ground water contamination? Ground water contamination usually occurs during the drilling process, not the fracking process. We’ve been drilling for a long time, since the firsts wells in Pennsylvania. I would think such irrevocable catastrophes would have occurred by now. The unique risks posed by fracking, as far as I know, deal with produced water, water consumption, radioactive particles, frack sand, and others. None of which seem to pose the irrevocable threat the argument suggests, but all of which can be worked around.

    Argument 2: I think municipalities should determine zoning specifics. My thinking is that drilling rigs should not be within half a mile of a neighborhood. That’s an arbitrary distance. It should be discussed, though. Besides, horizontal drilling can reach up to a mile, so it shouldn’t an unmanageable regulation.

    Argument 3: I’m not up to speed on the details of how fracking would be illegal if it weren’t for loopholes, so I can’t provide specifics, but would closing the loopholes really make fracking entirely untenable? And if this is the case, perhaps we should make a few exceptions for energy production since we are the ones placing such high demands on the Earth to produce energy in the first place. The law protects us from certain risks, but it looks like we’re the ones inflicting the harm upon ourselves, and better to manage that harm responsibly than distribute it onto third-world countries like Nigeria or countries in the middle east, where oil companies don’t have any responsibility to the people whatsoever.

    Argument 4: A ban on fracking doesn’t directly address these challenges. I agree we need to somehow get renewables off the ground and do it in a hurry, but natural gas is already a viable source of energy. And with renewables still only constituting 10-15 percent of our energy production, by banning fracking we would only be making ourselves more dependent on coal and petroleum, at least in the short-term. But maybe the idea is that by banning fracking we will force renewables into the fray. This sounds good enough to me, but what sounds better is to tighten regulations, frack responsibly, while simultaneously pushing a rigorous renewables agenda.