Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—along with horizontal drilling—has led to a miracle in our ability to exploit both oil and natural gas, pushing the United States toward energy independence. While this development is also pushing us well beyond sustainable fossil-fuel use, it can be argued that natural gas is cleaner than coal and has lessened the overall volume of greenhouse-gas emissions. The SSPP Blog has previously discussed this tricky issue; yet fracking generates questions beyond its climate-change impact. Excessive exploitation of difficult-to-reach fossil fuels can change a region’s geological structure and even cause earthquakes. The human ability to alter our planet may be having numerous unexpected consequences, harming us in a variety of ways. These risks need to be closely evaluated in deciding what path to take toward our energy future.
Fracking itself is unlikely to cause more than micro tremors, but the storage of the millions of gallons of wastewater used in the process is likely causing larger earthquakes. This is the conclusion of a recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study, which shows that the number of earthquakes in the United States of magnitude 2 and above had held steady at 21 a year until 2001, at which time it began rising, hitting 188 in 2011. The study attributes wastewater storage as the likely cause of “a magnitude 5.6 event in central Oklahoma that destroyed 14 homes and injured two people,” as well as several other earthquakes. In the UK, an earlier study had already attributed two small earthquakes to fracking (The Wall Street Journal, 2011). Our technology seems to be running ahead of our ability to control—or fully comprehend—it. By themselves, these incidents do not mean we need to give up fracking, but certainly we must proceed with caution and find safer means of deploying the technology. For instance, companies are beginning “to reuse wastewater to fracture additional wells, cutting down on both waste and total water use” (The Wall Street Journal, 2011). Certainly, if we are to continue with fracking, we must find safer ways to store the water. It might even be possible to find agents other than water to wrest these fossil fuels from within the Earth.
Unfortunately, our new technologies might be causing trouble in other ways. A recent Mother Jones article explains how injection mining of salt domes, by changing the configuration of sensitive areas beneath the earth, can cause sinkholes that swallow up houses and even whole neighborhoods. In 2012, one such sinkhole forced the evacuation of 350 residents in Bayou Corne, Louisiana, while the community remains threatened by toxic gases unleashed by the disaster. As Mother Jones argues, “modern mining and drilling techniques are disturbing the geological order in ways that scientists still don’t fully understand.” Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate an increase in sinkholes; for instance, inFlorida one swallowed a sleeping man in his bedroom. Florida’s geology, with its numerous cavities, makes it particularly susceptible to sinkholes. Yet, of the question whether the overall frequency of sinkholes is increasing, National Geographic concludes , “we don’t know, because we just don’t have enough data.” Our technology has outstripped our ability to fathom and control it, particularly in its interaction with complex natural systems.
Still, climate change remains the most troubling problem, one that exacerbates others. Like an organism with multiple cancers, we are causing our planet to assault itself—and us—in numerous, synergistic ways. If oil and coal reserves contain enough carbon to threaten the future of the human race, and natural gas is problematic as a bridge fuel to the future, what is left? There is, of course, renewable energy, but that remains miniscule—although growing fast. It is best to not use the energy in the first place, and energy efficiency and sustainable consumption can greatly reduce usage, but a path to an energy-secure future remains problematic. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 56% growth in global energy consumption from 2010 to 2050, with renewable energy increasing by 2.5% per year. Although I believe we can bend the curve downward on energy consumption and upward on renewable energy—with exponential growth in that sector—it is still hard to see a path toward the 80% reduction in fossil fuels needed by 2050 to head off the worst effects of climate change. A recent New York Times column by Eduardo Porter makes a powerful argument for nuclear energy as the only way to fill that gap, arguing that “A new generation of nuclear power...is potentially the cheapest energy source of all.” If carbon emissions are one’s only concern, it is clearly correct that nuclear is the best way to meet legitimate energy needs and keep fossil fuels underground, where they belong.
Yet nuclear has its own set of issues, such as where to store the waste for the hundreds of thousands of years necessary to render it harmless. The United States has recently rejected a plan to use Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as nuclear waste’s final resting place due to fierce local opposition, but no better site seems forthcoming. While the next generation of plants will produce far less waste, a huge global expansion of nuclear power still presents a long-term problem. Making matters more problematic is the resistance generated by Japan’s Fukushima disaster, in the aftermath of which radioactive waste continues to leak dangerously more than two years after the initial meltdown (Yamaguchi, 2013). If such an apparently sophisticated, efficient country cannot handle nuclear power, do we want to make it such a major source of electricity around the globe? Fukushima was a Black Swan, a rare and unpredictable event. The problem with Black Swans is that it is impossible to calculate how often they might occur, or in what circumstances: nuclear plants could suffer from earthquakes, tornados, sabotage, meteors, and who knows what else. While a global carbon tax would make possible an orderly step down of greenhouse-gas emissions, there is no way to enumerate Black Swan events, or even to calculate the trade-off of other environmental impacts.
If nuclear energy threatens human ability to manage our own technology, what are we to make of fracking? If it leads to semi-regular earthquakes and sinkholes, these might not be called Black Swans, but off-white ones—to be expected, but where and in what amount is impossible to know. In comparing fracked natural gas and nuclear plants as future sources of energy, there are too many unknowns to make more than an educated guess regarding their overall safety. Yet Porter argues that, given the time and expense of building nuclear plants, “If nuclear power is to play a leading role combating climate change, it should start now.” We need to make a difficult, expensive decision based on imperfect information. Doing so also implies an agency currently lacking, certainly on a global scale, for leaders to sit down, figure out what is best, and implement it. Perhaps China’s leaders have the power to do this (although arguably not the wisdom), but the United States is currently in a state of paralysis, at least regarding centralized governance. And global decision making is simply an ineffective hodge podge.
As the writer of this blog, I, myself, am in something of a state of paralysis, unable to make the leap to recommending a full-fledged nuclear program. Perhaps this is due to an irrational fear—although one can argue that fear of unknown unknowns is not irrational. Perhaps it is due to history, since the modern environmental movement began with a dread of nuclear radiation’s deadly, invisible danger, powerfully compared to the impact of DDT in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The fear of technology that humanity cannot control, though, exists side-by-side with an incessant demand for energy, for instance in the electricity that powers the computer that I am using to write these words. This is just one tiny example in an ocean of power we all depend upon. We have come to consider electricity (and, to a lesser extent, the internal combustion engine) a human right, take it for granted, cannot live without it. To generate the power we depend on, perhaps we will need to roll the dice and go nuclear.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.