Spanish Crisis Closes The Door IndustryWhat does the term “fracking” mean to you? Chances are there are numerous answers to that question because the term has vaulted into US vernacular and political debates virtually overnight, along with the astonishing domestic oil and gas production increases to which hydraulic fracturing is directly related. Fracking is a fairly complex hydrocarbon well-completion technology that languished in relative obscurity for decades until its very recent meteoric rise onto the mainstream national (and increasingly international) stage. Unfortunately, its rise was not accompanied by widespread understanding of the technology or how it connects to numerous important socio-political issues.

For a detailed a description and depiction of the practice, see this Breaking Energy slideshow.

One of best explanations of what fracking means and how it relates to several top-line issues of the day was written by Amy Jaffe and published last November.

“Science studies are being published regularly now and debate on those studies, while possibly confusing to the public, are intense, hopefully leading to better information and understanding that can inform regulators. But science does not unfold overnight and so the public needs to brace for some messy to- and fro-ing on unconventional resource development much the way that data on what does or doesn’t cause heart disease has fluctuated in the public domain as more science is peer reviewed and digested. …In the political world, the issue frame of anti-“fracking” can be shorthand for opposition to the wide spread expansion of cheap, carbon intensive fossil-fuel production at the expense of nascent, cleaner, more climate friendly renewable energy. Anti-“fracking” can also be a local political concern of bucolic rural communities that do not want to see industrialization in their midst, even if it is safe. In these cases when the purpose is clear, “fracking” opponents should say what they mean. They are opposed to the use of technologies that will enable greater, or at least -not reduced- use of oil and gas on the basis of sustainability concerns related to greenhouse gas emissions, air quality problems, water scarcity and other negatives that come along with increased industrial activity.” – Amy Jaffe, The Wall Street Journal’s The Experts: Energy

Today the New York Times features a story about how unconventional oil and gas development – largely reliant on hydraulic fracturing technology – is spurring economic and employment growth in long-forgotten regions of America’s heartland. The story has been told before, but the piece is interesting because it highlights some of the positive developments associated with the unconventional US oil and gas production boom.

“Both Youngstown and Canton are places which experienced nothing but disinvestment for 40 years,” said Ned Hill, a professor of economic development at Cleveland State University. Now, “they’re not ghost towns anymore. You actually have to go into reverse to find a parking spot downtown.” – New York Times

There is no free lunch and very few complex issues are inherently good or bad. The tendency to paint things in black and white when seeking to advance one’s view or position on an issue can be an effective strategy, but one that only muddies the waters and bullies genuine, fact-based debate.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of today’s fracking discussion. To ask an oil company about environmental concerns only to have them tell you about all the jobs they are creating does little good. At the same time, environmental activists are often blind to the positive attributes associated with an issue they are fighting, such as fracking.

Like any industrial activity there are benefits and drawbacks. So while the scientific “to- and fro-ing” around fracking continues, let’s digest the data and anecdotal evidence – both positive and negative – in order to generate clear views about what this development means from environmental, economic, climate, esthetic, public health, political and personal perspectives.