A Rationalist’s Approach to the Controversial Practice
The Green Party has a long list of things it doesn’t like. This is not particularly unusual, as every party has long lists of things they don’t like. However, unlike National’s distaste for beneficiaries, immigrants and women, or Labour’s distaste for rich people, rural people and freedom, the Green’s list tends to be somewhat more idiosyncratic, reflecting perhaps a party driven more by its activists then by any realistic need to govern the country. One of the more prominent recent additions to the List of Things to be Banned is a process known as Hydraulic Fracturing, or “Fracking”, a 50-year old method for increasing extraction of natural gas that has gained increased publicity due to claims it causes groundwater pollution, air pollution and earthquakes. This is all true. However, none of it matters.
The fracking “debate” is a classic example of when environmentalism, a movement with a noble goal, endangers its own credibility by failing to create a rational framework in which to evaluate policy. No policy can be evaluated on whether it creates harm alone; instead policy needs to consider whether harms are substantive and whether they outweigh the benefits produced.
Consider the harms in turn. Groundwater contamination is physically possible. It is also extremely unlikely. Even if it does occur, it is not plausibly going to cause meaningful harm. In New Zealand, fracking only occurs at depths below the aquifers that are used to supply drinking water. Fracking involves the high pressure injection of chemically treated water into subterranean natural gas bearing rock. The rock cracks, gas escapes, the gas and water are extracted from the well via shielded bores. Opponents cite US Environmental Protection Agency findings of groundwater contamination near fracking sites, but the contamination was extremely low. Subsequent researchers have posited such contamination is most likely due to ground-level spillage of dosed water, rather than the subterranean operation of fracking itself.
This is a problem associated with any industrial chemical activity, one that is solved by a sound regulatory regime. It is not a sound reason to ban this particular process.
Air pollution is similar. The process, if not properly controlled, can result in the release of toxic compounds into the air surrounding the drill-site. Again, however, detected levels of benzene (a known carcinogen and poster-child for the evils of fracking) around drill-sites are comparable to that detected around any manner of industrial process and match toxicity levels found in urban environments. Toxicity effects manifest from prolonged exposure, and there is little evidence of communities or individuals who have experienced such exposure. Further, mandatory air-quality monitoring would seem to assuage all fears air pollution could produce.
Perhaps the most disingenuous claim made is that about earthquakes, constantly cited by local opponents—for obvious reasons. Fracking certainly produces earthquakes, but these tremors almost always are of the magnitude of around 2.0-3.0 on the Richter scale. A logarithmic scale, each integer increase represents a ten times larger quake. A magnitude 2.0-3.0 earthquake, therefore, is 100 times smaller than the magnitude 4.0-5.0 earthquakes Wellingtonians often fail to notice. There is no evidence that fracking poses any risk as far as producing actually damaging quakes.
Given all this, what then should the reasonable response be? The answer is not a moratorium. While fracking certainly creates harms, there is no evidence it poses a real risk to the community, and certainly any risk is outweighed by the real benefits of increased natural gas production. The approach that should be applied is that applied to all other industrial processes: regulate responsibly, monitor externalities, and enjoy the benefits of increased energy production.
Of course for die-hard opponents of the practice, none of this will be persuasive. This is unfortunate, because it is the pitched battles over safe technologies (nuclear energy and genetic modification being other examples) that drive conceptions of an environmental movement driven not by reasonableness, but by ideological adherence to anti-industrial paranoia. Ignoring the evidence to reach desired conclusions is the same sin that drives political conservatives towards climate change denial, and sometimes it seems to drive those on the other side of the political spectrum in exactly the opposite direction. Neither direction is good for our environment. ▲