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To Frack or Not to Frack? Putting the Debate in Context

Sandy Tung's picture
Senior Manager 100 Resilient Cities

Sandy is a resilience practitioner with over 7 years’ experience in sustainable development and program management, specializing in embedding resilience principles into strategic planning...

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  • May 10, 2013 11:30 pm GMT

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Fracking – it’s, well, a huge fracking deal. It seems that everyone has an opinion, and so we should, because, unless you live completely and utterly off the grid, how the nation uses energy does and will affect you. But opinions are usually so extreme on either side it’s rare to find anyone presenting the issue in a fair and balanced way. What’s even more troubling, is that many have actually been basing their opinions on misinformation and incorrect so-called “facts”so that it is difficult to even start a meaningful conversation. Journalists who continue to propagate this misinformation are doing nothing to help either, stirring up emotions for sensationalist headlines.

The problem is that fracking and horizontal drilling (and this includes shale gas as well as tight oil) is not a simple, black and white issue. Everything about it is complicated, and technical, and potentially confusing if you are not from the industry. It is hard to be objective when you either don’t have all the facts or are looking at facts that have been manipulated to look good or bad.

Understanding the terms
One thing that has made the whole fracking debate so confusing to many is that there is so much jargon being thrown around. Simply establishing how much gas is out there is confusing enough. What’s the difference between reserves and resources? There are resources that have been discovered and undiscovered. One study will talk about technically recoverable reserves, another will use the estimated ultimate recovery of a reserve, another economically recoverable reserves. Then there are also ultimately recoverable reserves, proven and unproven reserves (or demonstrated and inferred). To a non-specialist, that is likely to be highly confusing and easily glossed over if you aren’t paying proper attention. Below is a graphic that may shed some light on what each term means.

In the worst cases a journalist may use these terms interchangeably (in which case then the numbers would just be wrong and misleading), and in many articles these terms are used without any explanation. Furthermore, all these numbers are gigantic, in the trillions – so what do they really mean? Which brings me to the subject of context.

Context is Key
To look at the whole issue in an objective way, facts need to be put in context. For example, a report by the Potential Gas Committee last month pegged new natural gas resources in the US at 2,384 trillion cubic feet. Well, that number doesn’t really mean anything to me without a comparison.

The Wall Street Journal’s article on this finding attempts a small degree of contextualisation, by saying that amounts to more than 90 times the amount of gas consumed in the US last year. So that means at best, if energy consumption were to remain approximately the same for the foreseeable future, there could be 90 years worth of gas for the nation (if we relied on 100% natural gas that is). Ok, that seems a lot, but the article does not tell us what percentage of that is from conventional sources versus unconventional (ie. shale from fracking), how much within that are reserves or resources, how much is proven, how much is technically recoverable, how much is economically recoverable now, etc., etc. So unless you are an oil and gas expert, that number doesn’t really tell me anything too useful, nor does it give any indication as to how much of that can actually be extracted and used.

In another example, I can argue that natural gas is cleaner than coal and because it’s becoming cheaper, it is helping to lower carbon dioxide emissions. So, good news! Fracking has enabled natural gas prices in the US to drop to around $4/million BTUs, enabling the US to replace some energy generation from coal with natural gas, which emits around 50% less carbon dioxide gas. Sound good so far?

But then I tell you that in Europe, because the natural gas price there is much higher, at approximately $8/MBTUs, and because you have all that cheap coal sitting around, countries like Germany are now actually importing coal from the US for power generation. Now looking from a global perspective, the issue starts to become more complex. How do renewables fit into the picture? Is shale a stepping stone to bring us from being coal-dependent to 100% renewable generation? Or is it in fact the other way around, that fracking is actually hindering the progress to further renewable development, because of how much natural gas prices have fallen?

Do your research
Fracking and unconventional oil and gas extraction (including tar and oil sands) has become such a highly politicised issue that it can be easy to get lost among the propaganda from both sides of the debate. Proponents paint a rosy picture of the new American dream, creating thousands of jobs and making the nation energy independent along the way, exaggerating the economic benefits and dismissing the environmental risks. Opponents will tell you horror stories about the poisoning of land and contamination of water without backing up the claims with sound scientific evidence. Unfortunately, both sides of the argument can be extremely persuasive, with images like this provoking strong emotional responses (the flaming tap actually has nothing to do with fracking by the way):


So do your own research, explore both sides of the debate, be open to new findings, look at things from a different perspective. Put things in context. Don’t get caught out by those who cherry-pick certain facts that suit their cause. Just because you don’t like the evidence does not make it untrue! This piece by Popular Mechanics is a good place to start that dispels some of the claims from both sides of the fracking debate. Unconventional drilling is a touchy subject, but one that is unfortunately unavoidable, as it isn’t going away anytime soon, so we should be talking and thinking about its impact and its consequences.

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Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on May 11, 2013

Very interesting and enjoyable to read. One question – under the section titled: “context is key” you give a cost for natural gas at $3 – 4 per gal in US and $8 per gallon in Europe. Is that liquid fuel equivalent or should the unit be per MMBTU or cubic feet? (or one of those fancy pants SI units.) But honestly, you presented the material well, trying to “keep between the ditches” in the argument of energy v. environment – in a transparent and concise way.

Units are a pain. That’s why chemical engineers solved the physics using non-dimensional mathematical analysis. Or did 30 + years ago.

…edited to spell check – spelling too

Sandy Tung's picture
Sandy Tung on May 13, 2013

Thanks for pointing that out Michael, the cost of natural gas should be $4 per million BTUs. Units are a tricky one too, a subject for another day perhaps!

Thanks for your feedback!


Bob Lee's picture
Bob Lee on May 31, 2013

A big issue with countries like Germany is that the evironmental lobby has such a sugnificant impact on policies that prohibit the explotation of natural gas reserves through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The EU reliance on renewables has also pushed many countries to start buring more coal as the energy costs have reached levels that are pricing their manufacturing industry out of business. 

Great article Sandy!

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