Hot Button Issues: Fracking

by Tracy Swinburn on December 18, 2012

The School of Public Health (SPH) recently published a feature in Findings magazine on ‘hot button issues’ with perspectives from the SPH community.  Several Risk Science Center members and collaborators were featured, and we are grateful to Findings for allowing us to re-post these articles as a five-part series in Risk Sense.

John Callewaert on Fracking:

The Issue: For several decades, the energy industry has been using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—the process of injecting water, with or without additives or sand and chemicals, underground—to release deep deposits of natural gas from the earth. What’s changed is the addition of horizontal drilling and new and sometimes undisclosed chemicals. From a public health perspective, there’s concern about the potential for both underground water contamination and above-ground spills from stored water supplies and wastewater. From an environmental perspective, there are concerns about the vast quantities of water the process requires and the disruption of habitat.

The Debate: Proponents of fracking contend that it’s a safe and secure domestic energy source that can help re-industrialize the U.S. Opponents argue that it’s a shaky bridge to a cleaner energy future. Because of the diesel required for the process and the potential for methane leaks from extraction through distribution, it’s not clear that fracked gas is any cleaner than coal, and there are legitimate questions about the potential danger to both human health and the environment from underground water contamination and above-ground spills. Organizations such as the Sierra Club believe fracking should be banned outright. At the Graham Sustainability Institute, we take the position that it’s difficult to condemn a process that’s been around for so long, especially given the positive regulatory track record in Michigan. However, we should certainly examine the technology and scale of what’s happening today.

A Way Forward: In Michigan, the Graham Sustainability Institute is committed to examining multiple facets of the issue—from public health and the environment to economics and geology—in collaboration with other U-M institutes (the Michigan Energy Institute, the Risk Science Center, and the Erb Institute); U-M faculty; environmental and industry groups; and state regulatory officials. We acknowledge that fracking is happening and will probably expand—we want to make sure it happens in the best way possible, and we hope by early next year to develop recommendations for that. Ideally, this kind of “engaged problem-solving” could set an example for other states to follow.

—John Callewaert, Integrated Assessment Program Director, U-M Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute


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