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Fracks and facts

Daniel Raimi's book sifts through the bluster and rhetoric. The result will please and annoy both sides

Shale oil and gas have changed the world, but hydraulic fracturing, the technique that frees the molecules from otherwise-impermeable rock, is still controversial. Several European countries have banned it. Activists still picket UK drilling sites. Hillary Clinton, who in government sought to export American shale technology, came out against fracking in her doomed presidential bid. Industry boosters and anti-fracking campaigners duke it out daily online, always talking past one another.

The opponents have quite a charge list. Fracking contaminates aquifers and drinking water. It causes earthquakes. Methane leakage worsens climate change. The US sector is an unregulated Wild West. Shale gas stunts renewable energy. And on. Supporters say the shale revolution has slashed US emissions; the regulations are actually too onerous; fracking will deliver energy independence for America; and its arrival has brought huge economic benefits.

A new book from Daniel Raimi, a researcher at the non-profit institute Resources For the Future and at the University of Michigan, tries to draw a straight line through the rhetoric. Read it. Rarely do books about essentially technical energy matters marshal arcane data and peer-reviewed research so digestibly.

The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution is also partly reportage. "A few days of driving through oil and gas country, coupled with conversations across a barstool, can teach you as much as dozens of journal articles and research reports." But it's rife with the crunchy stuff too. What emerges is the best and most even-handed book on the subject. No reader can finish it and plead ignorance about the facts afterwards.

Raimi assesses the claims, picking out the untruths and manipulations from both sides. Fracking is hardly new, he points out, and the US hardly short of experience. Since 1949, when Halliburton first fracked a well, the practice has been applied to millions of wells around the world. "Virtually since its inception, the oil and gas industry has been blowing stuff up underground." More than 200,000 wells have also now been drilled horizontally or directionally.

Still, flames flicking from taps is a powerful image, as anti-fracking campaigner Josh Fox, creator of the 2010 film Gasland, showed. Does fracking cause this? Raimi visits Dimock, Pennsylvania—home of the flammable faucet—and also deploys the evidence. "Put simply, methane can wind up in drinking water because of oil and gas development and from natural causes." But fracking isn't really the culprit, poor well construction is.

In fact, that's part of the whole problem with the controversy, argues Raimi: the antagonists don't even agree on the definition. He makes a distinction between fracking and "fracking". The former is what the industry understands—the hydraulic fracturing process itself—and the latter is the opponents' term, encompassing the entire oil and gas extraction chain. Accidents in cement casing, for example, can affect any oil and gas well, but are often cited as dangers inherent to fracking. The industry likes the narrow definition; opponents, the broad one. Thus, writes Raimi, readers of DeSmog or ThinkProgress, two websites favoured by anti-frackers, "end up with one definition of fracking, while readers of Energy in Depth [a site for boosters] come away with another".

As with the burning taps, so with contamination of drinking water, earthquakes and hazardous pollution. These exist. The research on whether fracking "makes people sick", he writes, raises serious concerns, if not a smoking gun. But more research is needed to establish causality. Companies and regulators make mistakes and cut corners. Drilling wells, fracking them, and moving oil and gas around the world is "an exercise in risk management".

Fracking is regulated, but the rules are a mishmash across states and local jurisdictions. Weak regulation and enforcement on matters such as wastewater disposal or well-construction are to blame for problems. Allowing "produced water"—the stuff used in the frack job that later resurfaces—to be reinjected near faultlines raised the incidence of small earthquakes in Oklahoma, for example. But the rules changed and the tremors largely ceased.

Do fracking's benefits outweigh the risks? Surging gas output has displaced coal and fuel oil, slashing American emissions. But much coal has still found willing burners in the export market. And methane leakage puts a more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2 into the air. Cheaper natural gas also means gas-fired power stations compete with renewables for investment. Fracking, Raimi concludes, is "neither a hero nor a saviour". Shale gas can only mitigate climate change if governments enforce policies on carbon pricing.

Nor, despite the claims of shale boosters, can more drilling insulate the US from the global market or underpin its economy. Tight gas and oil have not detached the US from global markets but increased its interdependence, "and that's a good thing". The domestic economic benefits are also complex. The price crash, partly caused by the American output surge, brought down consumer fuel costs, but also brutalised oil-and-gas-producing areas. The net impact on GDP was "roughly zero".

All of this is subtle stuff—perhaps too nuanced for extremists on both sides of the fracking debate. But one thing is clear. It would be helpful if the antagonists first agreed on what fracking is and separated fact from fiction. They should start with Raimi's book.

The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

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