It is unavoidable to pass a gas station without glancing at the price in shock, not because of how high the price is, but quite the opposite. The recent oil war spurred by OPEC and the diminished demand for oil caused by COVID-19 has caused oil prices to tailspin to record lows. While most of us are joyous over this, it is pertinent to think about the implications the reduced prices have on the oil and gas industry. One of the major threats it poses is increasing the abandonment of fracking wells in the U.S. as firms become unprofitable, therefore raising the risk of improperly plugged sites, which invites a host of threats to human health and the environment. It is necessary that action is taken to ensure that these wells operations and closures are planned well in advance, including a high enough financial assurance from firms to guarantee that oversight and safety precautions are followed through, even if firms go bankrupt.
A study by the EPA in 1989, concluded that there is upwards of 1.2 million improperly abandoned wells in the US. Although, this number is likely much higher as there are no recent conclusive studies on the topic and little continued oversight. While active fracking sites already emit methane, a 2015 research article in the Geophysical Research Letters, reports that unproperly abandoned wells emit approximately 10x more methane than active wells. Methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases contributing to global warming, is 32x more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than Carbon Dioxide. Other risks abandoned wells pose are weakening the structural integrity of houses and buildings nearby, along with the ground itself. There have been incidents of geysers, sink holes, and earthquakes all originating from abandoned fracking sites.
The other major threat of fracking is pollution to the soil and groundwater from both the chemical and sand solution used in the extraction process and the oil itself. This chemical concoction can continue to seep to the surface and leech into groundwater after wells are closed, which is devastating for the biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems and risks contaminating drinking water. In 2015, Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center published that, ¾ of the chemicals used in fracking are known to be harmful to human health. Many are recognized to be carcinogenic, cause respiratory issues, reduce fertility, and disrupt our endocrine system.
The cost of medical expenses, maintaining local infrastructure, and cleaning up of contaminated sites, is not calculated in the cost of fracked oil or gas. These extra costs to our environment and health are often paid for by individuals or the government. Yet even government intervention is not enough, as Laura Legere and Anya Litvak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettereport, in 2019 the DEP in Pennsylvania- the second largest producer of fracking in the US – only allocated $1 million to locate and plug abandoned wells, enough to plug only 12 wells annually. It should be up to the firms themselves to pay for this cost, and the cost of any damage, thereafter, especially considering that even wells that are plugged, can weaken over time; bond requirements are a good way to ensure that this happens. In a 2019 study published in The American Economic Review, Boomhower finds that by requiring firms to show financial assurance through a bond, there is approximately a 70% decrease in orphaned wells.
Ideally, I propose an eventual ban on all fracking, as active wells pose similar threats to our health, the environment, and are continually becoming abandoned. However, I acknowledge the economic benefit fracking has brought to many communities across the country, providing employment, good pay, and giving the US more energy security. Yet, the financial instability of these firms reveals how easily these benefits can be taken away: Peter Eavis of the New York Times reports, that the top three fracking companies in PA have a collective debt of over $14 billion. Furthermore, Jennifer Hiller of Reuters reports that in order to budget for the decline in the price of oil there have been drastic cuts to staff across the Country. Even without the oil war, the future of fracking is uncertain, and it is necessary to diversify these local economies now and our energy sector overall.
I want you to ask yourself, is it really worth it to continue supporting the fracking industry in this country? Suddenly it is the taxpayers who are not only exposed to the pollution caused by the operations, but the ones paying for the cleanup through taxes. Your voice matters, and you can share your opinions on fracking by reaching out to your local representative, https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials. We need to take actions now to ensure a safe and healthy life for the future.