Has fracking changed our energy future for the better, or for the worse? Read viewpoints on both sides and vote in the poll below.

The use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas from the earth dates back to the 1940s, but only in the past few years has “fracking” become an energy buzzword, alluding primarily to the shale gas boom in the United States and all of the controversy that has accompanied it. Fracking—the high-pressure injection of water, chemicals and sand into shale deposits to release the gas and oil trapped within the rock—in recent years has been combined with horizontal drilling and other improvements in technology to harvest stores of gas and oil that previously were thought commercially unfeasible to access. (See interactive: “Breaking Fuel from the Rock“)

The implications of this sea change are debatable, but the impact is undeniable. In the United States, oil production last year reached its highest level in 14 years, thanks in part to output from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, and is expected to keep rising. Natural gas production, already at new highs thanks to shale gas, is expected to grow 44 percent in the U.S. between 2011 and 2040. (See “Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees U.S. Future Shaped by Fracking.“)

Now countries around the world, including China, the United Kingdom and South Africa, are eyeing shale development as the potential key to unlock a similar windfall of homegrown energy. Debate rages on about whether these worldwide reserves can be tapped safely, and whether environmental damage from fracking natural gas will outweigh the gains from using a fuel that is cleaner than oil or coal, but remains a fossil fuel nonetheless. A few viewpoints on both sides of the issue follow.

Roughnecks remove two miles of heavy steel drilling pipe, one 32-foot section at a time, as oil and natural gas spew from the well. The hard, dangerous work on oil rigs pays up to $120,000 a year. (Photograph by Eugene Richards)

Roughnecks remove two miles of heavy steel drilling pipe, one 32-foot section at a time, as oil and natural gas spew from the well. The hard, dangerous work on oil rigs pays up to $120,000 a year. (Photograph by Eugene Richards)

Positive impacts of fracking

“The United States is in the midst of the ‘unconventional revolution in oil and gas’ that, it becomes increasingly apparent, goes beyond energy itself. Today, the industry supports 1.7m jobs — a considerable accomplishment given the relative newness of the technology. That number could rise to 3 million by 2020. In 2012, this revolution added $62 billion to federal and state government revenues, a number that we project could rise to about $113 billion by 2020.2 It is helping to stimulate a manufacturing renaissance in the United States, improving the competitive position of the United States in the global economy, and beginning to affect global geopolitics.” —Daniel Yergin, vice chair of global consulting firm IHS, in February testimony before Congress

“Natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction imported oil. It is a bridge fuel to slash our oil dependence while buying us time to develop new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil transportation fuels. Natural gas is the critical puzzle piece RIGHT NOW. It will help us to keep more of the $350 to $450 billion we spend on imported oil every year at home, where it can power our economy and pay for our investments in a smart grid, wind and solar energy, and increased energy efficiency. By investing in alternative energies while utilizing natural gas for transportation and energy generation, America can decrease its dependence on OPEC oil, develop the cutting-edge know-how to make wind and solar technology viable, and keep more money at home to pay for the whole thing.” —Pickens Plan, a site outlining BP Capital founder T. Boone Pickens’ proposed energy strategy

“My town was dying. This is a full-scale mining operation, and I’m all for it. Now we can get back to work.” —Brent Sanford, mayor of Watford City, a town at the center of the North Dakota oil boom, in “The New Oil Landscape” (NGM March 2013 issue)

A natural gas flare illuminates an evening tableau of discarded vehicles and farm tools. (Photograph by Eugene Richards)

A natural gas flare illuminates an evening tableau of discarded vehicles and farm tools. (Photograph by Eugene Richards)

Negative impacts of fracking

“According to a number of studies and publications GAO reviewed, shale oil and gas development poses risks to air quality, generally as the result of (1) engine exhaust from increased truck traffic, (2) emissions from diesel-powered pumps used to power equipment, (3) gas that is flared (burned) or vented (released directly into the atmosphere) for operational reasons, and (4) unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment or impoundment—temporary storage areas. Similarly, a number of studies and publications GAO reviewed indicate that shale oil and gas development poses risks to water quality from contamination of surface water and groundwater as a result of erosion from ground disturbances, spills and releases of chemicals and other fluids, or underground migration of gases and chemicals.”—General Accounting Office report on shale development, September 2012

“The gas ‘revolution’ has important implications for the direction and intensity of national efforts to develop and deploy low-emission technologies, like [carbon capture and storage] for coal and gas. With nothing more than regulatory policies of the type and stringency simulated here there is no market for these technologies, and the shale gas reduces interest even further. Under more stringent GHG targets these technologies are needed, but the shale gas delays their market role by up to two decades. Thus in the shale boom there is the risk of stunting these programs altogether. While taking advantage of this gift in the short run, treating gas a ‘bridge’ to a low-carbon future, it is crucial not to allow the greater ease of the near-term task to erode efforts to prepare a landing at the other end of the bridge.”—from a study on shale gas and U.S. energy policy by researchers at MIT (also see: “Shale Gas: A Boon That Could Stunt Alternatives, Study Says“)

“Oil is a rental business. …When the industry goes south, and it will go south, they just walk away.” Dan Kalil, charman of the Williams County Board of Commissioners in North Dakota, in “The New Oil Landscape” (NGM March 2013 issue)

What do you think? Vote below and comment with your thoughts.



  1. Grandpa
    February 23, 2013, 10:26 am

    I want the way that will let us look our grandkids in the eye years from now. Why is it we find $trillions to fight wars, but there never seems to be enough to make a huge push on clean, sustainable energy?

  2. Chris Rush Dudley
    United States
    February 23, 2013, 12:49 am

    We cannot rule out human extinction as a possible result of Anthropogenic Global Climate Change–that’s not me talking that’s NASA, Stephen Hawkings, a recent U.S. Military commission on climate change, and on and on. I wonder if all the ‘free’ market folks will begin to question the underpinnings of their philosophy when they, finally, realize they can no longer deny climate change and, further, that they’ve been repeating a lie sold to them by the wealthiest among us. I wonder what they will tell their children? How do you explain that your job was more important than your child’s air, water and health?

  3. Al Garnier
    February 22, 2013, 11:58 pm

    Well that’s the dirty little secret. To frack one hole it takes a volume of fresh water equal to the size of a small lake. The chemicals used pollute the fresh water that can never be reused. Considering that our fresh water supply is limited and salt water can’t be used because it corrodes the equipment used, we are draining life giving lakes of fresh water by the fracking activity while polluting the ground water.

  4. Gerald
    February 22, 2013, 11:38 pm

    Fracking, like any other method of extracting energy has its advantages and disadvantages. Look at other viable energy sources and weigh the pros and cons. Ask people in Japan how they would feel about natural gas power as opposed to nuclear. I am a fracker and I see first hand how it can be improved. I can tell you that in Canada it is environmental responsible. And getting better every day. Also all that fresh water that supposedly doesn’t get replaced? That stuff literally falls from the sky.

  5. Melisa
    February 22, 2013, 11:37 am

    I work in the industrial oil field as a medic and i am appalled at the trees cut down and not replaced, the incredible amount of water used for fracing, yet it keeps us employed and gives us opportunities we couldnt have without this Oil and Gas industry. I am concerned about the effects on the earth and mankind in the future from the chemicals used and the water wasted.

  6. Kathleen
    February 22, 2013, 11:35 am

    We know why, by who or whom, what the consequences are if it is continued (from lots of money to be made to lots of ecological distruction as well as lives of all species; HUMAN AND OTHER ANIMALS, around the world .), and where fracking takes place. The question is what to do about it, it is not simple answer , because quitting one energy source induces another. I,personally want to see this stopped, but how?

  7. Nenad
    February 21, 2013, 1:26 pm

    Ordinary American people are big buck hostages in their own country by number of “elite” families which would not care less if every single American would die as long as they could live and preserved and increase their fortune no matter what. One can say it is not about families it is about corporation but who own those corporations? If this is not yet obvious for many maybe it will be in relatively near future.

  8. KL
    February 20, 2013, 2:49 am

    Despite billions in government subsidies alternative energy has yet to prove viable, popular among consumers or significant as an actual alternative to fossil fuel. The “subsidies” the fossil fuel industry receives are called deductions for business expenses, the same tax write offs that every business gets. The market, meaning energy consumers, will decide which forms of energy are viable, not greens or government bureaucrats who haven’t the slightest idea how the marketplace operates.

  9. Harinam
    February 19, 2013, 9:15 pm

    Oil shale production will do some damage. The good news is that if it at least partially replaces oil (like now), he human species may survive.

    February 19, 2013, 3:19 pm

    There are so many other problems with fracking as well: it causes earthquakes, it’s been found that over 60% of wells leak over time, it contaminates nearby wells and streams, the millions of gallons of run-off is filled with carcinogens and other deadly chemicals that need to be put somewhere (right now there are acres and acres of open pits filled with it and normal waste water treatment plants are not equipped to handle the high level of contaminants), nearby landowners are experiencing rashes, breathing problems, pets and animals dying and their property values are plummeting, and there hasn’t been a conclusive study of the health effects of all this completed yet. There’s some great information and some great illustrations in this story: http://www.thenation.com/article/171504/fracking-our-food-supply#. I can’t understand why we’d sacrifice our drinking water for a transitional energy source that’s estimated to only last a couple of decades while decimating our environment and, potentially, our health. There are alternatives that are safe and viable. Take away fossil fuel subsidies (federal subsidies are over $40B/year) and renewable energy sources are already a parity…with no sick children left behind…