GUEST COMMENTARY: What oil companies aren't saying about fracking

Monday, July 11, 2011 | 6:50 p.m. CDT; updated 11:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Columbia Missourian (July 8) contained a letter from the director of a special-interest group that serves the oil industry, which extols the virtues of a proposed pipeline that would supply petroleum from “Canadian oil sands” to the U.S.

The letter claims such benefits as “jobs,” “clean energy” and “energy independence,” but nowhere does it acknowledge the controversial method by which the petroleum is extracted from the earth.

As the earth’s supply of oil dwindles, oil companies have resorted to sources that are increasingly more difficult to access, such as oil that is embedded in shale or sand.

The oil and natural gas contained in these materials are released by the high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water and tons of chemicals, many harmful to humans, in a process known as fracking.

Not only is this process used in Canada, it is used in parts of the U.S. Oil and natural gas companies have embarked on an expensive advertising campaign to convince the American people that this approach will lead to the benefits alleged in the letter.

However, serious concerns about the safety of fracking have been raised by studies conducted by scientists at Duke and Cornell universities and by adverse experiences of families living near wells developed in the fracking process.

Concerns include the possible contamination of drinking water with dangerous chemicals. Recently, several states have taken action to limit fracking, and the Environmental Protection Agency has launched an extensive study to assess the effects of fracking on drinking water, with the results expected in 2014.

Certainly it is premature as a society to jump on fracking and pipeline bandwagons before these results are available.

The argument made in the letter that the U.S. should use oil from Canadian sands because China is doing so is simplistic. China has launched a massive, billion-dollar national effort to develop such renewable sources of energy as solar and wind power, creating millions of jobs in the process.

They are streaking ahead of us in this vital area. As a nation, if we are serious about competing successfully with China, we need to get serious about developing these sources rather than perpetuating our dependence on fossil fuels.

The letter championing the proposed pipeline also exhibits a woeful lack of faith in the free enterprise system by implying that continuation of billions of dollars of government subsidies is necessary to preserve the economic well-being of oil companies, the most profitable companies in history.

Surely, of the hundreds of companies included in mutual funds, 401(k) plans or pension plans, oil companies are the least in need of financial assistance from American taxpayers.

The socialistic notion that the government should channel money to wealthy corporations for the benefit of stockholders is preposterous.

These companies should be able to compete in the marketplace without government welfare.

Robert Blake is a professor emeritus of family and community medicine at MU.

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Corey Parks July 11, 2011 | 8:33 p.m.

Good stuff. Of course those that live around the areas this takes place have already known about the pros can cons for years.

Robert Blakes next article should be titled "What solar panel manufacturers aren't saying about production.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 12, 2011 | 6:40 a.m.

Well put.

I'd like to add something that should be obvious. This technology is used because someone can make a profit using it. It would die rather quickly if it became uneconomic (nobody could make a profit using it).

If you want to make ANY technology obsolete, kill it with economics rather than trying to kill the technology itself.

I agree, governments should not be subsidizing petroleum companies (but they do, including the Chinese).

PS: The Chinese presently derive a significant portion of their electrical energy from coal-fired generation. Care to guess where part of that coal comes from? Solid revenue for American railroads (hauling coal to ports). Both the United States and China have large coal reserves, but a significnt part of the Chinese reserves appear to be of lower caloric value and/or are high in sulfur.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders July 12, 2011 | 10:32 a.m.

Ellis, you are spot on about the economic limitations of the technology, as profit is a means test to determine whether or not the endeavor efficiently meets human needs. In other words, in a free society, profit is a good thing.

What is left out of the discussion that ensures profitability in this case is the protection government provides to limit the liability of the frackers. If not for the likes of the EPA (and other "regulatory" agencies), people could (and did in the past) sue for damages. Today however, the courts will not listen to your case, because they've ruled that individual damages (real problems for real people) are insignificant as compared to the abstraction known as the greater good.

So, unless you can catch them violating a set level of allowable damage, you have no standing to bring a case to court. As for the idea that these agencies will ensure a safe environment, well, just go to Youtube where you can see countless videos of people lighting their faucets on fire. These people have absolutely no recourse to rectify the problem except to beg the criminal class (which created the problem in law) to use their force for your benefit.

I've little doubt that fracking is wholly uneconomical once all of the costs are factored in. Problem is, we'll never get the chance to force the costs onto the producers, as the socialist idea of the greater good precludes proper accounting by foisting the costs upon others who have been rendered helpless.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders July 12, 2011 | 10:39 a.m.

Oh, worse yet, much of the fracking occurs on federal lands, where there is no one person who is responsible for the property.

This creates the classic "Tragedy of the Commons," where there is no incentive for anyone to conserve, while there is every incentive to exploit (as once again, they do not bear the cost of their destructive activities). Especially when exploitation feeds the political graft cycle in the form of billion dollar presidential elections.

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall July 12, 2011 | 11:45 a.m.

I just saw a 60 minutes piece on fracking this past Sunday. Thanks to Halliburton and a Bush era law championed by Dick Cheney (surprise), the fracking industry is not obligated in any way to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. So we don't even know what's being pumped into the ground, and the industry has no intention whatsoever of telling us. A court cannot sue for the information, because the law already exempts the companies from compliance. It's called the "Halliburton Loophole."

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 12, 2011 | 12:11 p.m.

My comment was intended to be much broader. If you want to eliminate something you dislike and/or find dangerous and/ or morally repugnant, attack it on economic grounds. That is usually more effective than attacking it as technology per se. If the offending technology can withstand an economic attack, maybe it has merit.

As that great philosopher, Madonna, as instructed us in song, "We are living in a material world..."

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