Skip to main content

Make sure fracking is done right

By Michael Levi, Special to CNN
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Tue May 28, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. energy production has surged, largely due to fracking for natural gas
  • Michael Levi says energy boom increases U.S. security, boosts the economy
  • Fracking can be done safely, but rules must be in place to regulate it, he says

Editor's note: Michael A. Levi, the David Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council of Foreign Relations, is the author of a new book, "The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future."

(CNN) -- American energy production is skyrocketing, and pundits are promising everything from millions of jobs to energy independence. All of this could be put in jeopardy, though, if we don't get serious about the accompanying risks and make sure that oil and gas development is done right.

The United States is now the world's largest producer of natural gas. Meanwhile U.S. oil production increased last year by over 300 million barrels -- its biggest jump since the industry began in 1859.

There's good reason to believe that these changes have created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Meanwhile increased production of cleaner burning natural gas has helped cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to their lowest level in more than a decade. And while claims of looming "energy independence" are wildly over the top, there's no question that the oil and gas boom is making the country more secure in the world.

These changes are driven by a technique known as "fracking," short for hydraulic fracturing, which is being used to produce oil and gas trapped in dense shale rock.

Photos: Taking from the land: Oiling on Indian reservations

Drillers dig down thousands of feet underground, take a sharp turn, and then bore thousands of feet further sideways. Then they pump a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into the new L-shaped well, and detonate explosives to create tiny cracks in the surrounding shale. Oil and gas flows through those cracks and eventually up to the surface where it can be collected, shipped, and sold.

Michael Levi
Michael Levi

The practice has raised alarm in many of the communities where it's used. People fear that their water will be contaminated by the chemicals that are used in fracking. They worry about earthquakes that have been reported near some places where disposal of water from fracking occurs. And they often bristle at how a sudden surge of workers and wealth transforms their neighborhoods overnight.

These concerns have led to a moratorium on fracking in New York State, and efforts to pass similar restrictions by state and local governments elsewhere, from Colorado to Texas.

People are right to insist that fracking is done safely, but they're wrong if they conclude that it can't be. The key is to drill down on the biggest problems and require drillers to address them.

The first risk has to do with water. The problem isn't so much what's pumped underground -- it's borderline impossible for fracking chemicals to seep up from thousands of feet beneath the earth and into water supplies -- but what comes back out.

Opinion: The myth of energy independence

When oil and gas are produced, they're accompanied by "flowback water", which contains a mix of toxic chemicals found underground. If drillers cut corners and don't dispose of that water right, it can contaminate local water supplies. Rules need to be in place -- and enforced aggressively -- to ensure that doesn't happen.

The second danger has to do with air. Some drillers power their operations using diesel; others let gas seep out from their equipment. Both practices lead to local air pollution. And while the emissions from a single well might not be big, the impact of dozens of wells operating in the same area can be bad. These problems can be fixed -- diesel generators can be replaced with equipment that uses clean-burning gas, and leaks can be plugged -- but the rules need to be right.

CNN Explains: Fracking

Perhaps the toughest challenge, though, is fitting fracking into communities that aren't used to intense industrial development. It's no surprise that concerns about fracking began to really rise in 2009, when the practice migrated from states like Texas and Louisiana, where oil and gas development is commonplace, to Pennsylvania, where oil production peaked in 1891.

If local authorities do things like make sure roads are maintained, help workers get training so that they can join the oil and gas business if they want to, and protect people on pensions who often struggle with rising living costs in boom towns, everyone can win. If they don't, though, the intense fights that result between winners and losers from energy production can be paralyzing.

Opinion: Don't let America get 'fracked'

A lot of enthusiasts for oil and gas are hostile to new rules. They say that companies are already doing the right thing and warn that extra costs could kill the industry. It's true that many companies are ahead of the curve when it comes to social and environmental responsibility; some are even working actively with local and environmental groups to ensure that they pursue development right. But the dangers don't come from the good guys -- they come from the laggards who screw things up. Reining them in can't be done just through voluntary steps.

That makes it a relief that, while dumb regulation could indeed be crushing, smart rules would not. (By one estimate, a suite of twenty-two tough requirements, including greater disclosure of fracking fluids and tighter standards for cementing wells, would add at most 7% to the cost of a well.)

The biggest risk for fracking, and to all the benefits it brings, isn't that drillers will have to spend a bit more to make sure that oil and gas production proceeds safely. It's that they won't -- and that the resulting backlash when things inevitably go wrong will deal the U.S. power surge a far more severe blow.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Levi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT