An Honest Look at America's Fracking Industry versus Solar PV Adoption

Updated: Apr 1, 2021


The controversy is old, bitter and polarized — and I would add that it is mostly due to biased propaganda, gross misinformation, poor research and negligent reporting from mainstream channels on both sides. I know... that is some strong language to start this article. However, before jumping into defense mode, I promise to steer my solar advocate hat away from interfering in keeping it strictly factual and open to further discussion. I invite you to join me down the rabbit hole to see where that leads us and together shed some light on this bisecting social issue of global expansion.



Fracking


In layman's terms, hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is a technology used for extracting fossil fuel products from deep underground, by applying high pressure fluids to fracture rock formations and thereby release the natural gas and/or petroleum. The mixture used for fracking fluid is typically composed of water, proppant (mostly sand), and chemicals.

Traditionl Fracking vs. Horizontal Fracking
Horizontal wells account for 69% of fracking wells drilled in the U.S.


Brief History


As I mentioned earlier, this controversy is getting old; yet not as old as the patent upon which this technology rests; U.S. Patent No. 59,936 — awarded to Col. Edward Roberts in 1866. Yes, you read that right... fracking is not a new concept! Believe it or not, it was born exactly a year after cease fire of the US the Civil War. This valuable drilling technique made it possible for oil and natural gas producers to massively extract fossil fuels from shale rock, a fine-grained, clastic rock.


Although technically born in 1866, modern day fracking didn't break through until 81 years later, when Floyd Farris of Stanolind Oil and Gas, experimented on the relationship between fossil fuel production output and the amount of pressurized treatment being used on each well. His research ultimately resulted in the creation of present day hydraulic fracturing in 1947.


It wasn't until the 1970s that fracking began to surge in the Piceance, San Juan, and Denver Basins, as well as the Green River Container. This dramatic increase in the use of fracking promoted the advancement of shale oil sources in the US after 1975, as part of President Ford's overall energy plan to reduce foreign oil imports.


By 2018, the U.S. became the top producer of oil and natural gas in the world, ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.


Fracking wells illustration

Environmental Concerns of Fracking


So, why all the fuss? That's where it gets more complicated. Environmental advocates claim hydrolic fracturing activities could potentially create issues that mainly impact underground and surface water supplies, chemical soil pollution, erossive impact caused by "frac sand" or silica sand (SiO2) mining for use as proppant, or seismic site effect caused by the slipping of underground rock formations induced by the injection of waste fluids — among other equally alarming concerns.


EPA Study on Water Pollution Caused by Fracking


I was surprised to learn that a June 2015 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study originally requested by Congress, and the subsequent draft report on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, reflected that although possible, there is no sufficient evidence to sustain massive impact of underground and surface water resources do to fracking. In fact, the "NOT TO BE CITED" early EPA draft report, (which at this time "DOES NOT CONSTITUTE AGENCY POLICY") then stated that the agency “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”


Needless to say, although not conclusive, the oil and gas community welcomed and celebrated that early draft report. However, after environmentalist groups pushed back on those statements and additional pressure from the SAB peer review, the EPA resolved changes to its original statement to include language more intuned with environmental advocates' concerns concluding in their final assessment: "Data gaps and uncertainties limited EPA’s ability to fully assess the potential impacts on drinking water resources locally and nationally. Because of these data gaps and uncertainties, it was not possible to fully characterize the severity of impacts, nor was it possible to calculate or estimate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle." In other words, the EPA left it open to the reader's discresion to assume or further research the extent to which hydraulic fracturing impacts water resources in the US.


Seismic Activity Triggered by Fracking

OK, one might think... that's just one concern. But, what about seismic activity induced by fracking? A 2020 Study of the Connection Between Hydraulic Fracturing and Seismic Activity in New York State, concluded that "while we have found that there are some earthquakes that occur in the well areas that correspond to the time of the fracking being done, there are very few instances in which it occurs."


Another independent study in Canada suggests that although "Fracking can cause earthquakes that rumble on for months after the controversial gas extraction process ends", most are too small and rarely noticeable. Moreover, the USGS stated that "most induced earthquakes are not directly caused by hydraulic fracturing" and "the largest earthquake known to be induced by hydraulic fracturing in the United States was a magnitude 4.0 earthquake that occurred in 2018 in Texas."


Conclusively, fracking has negligible impact on increased seismic activity in or near well areas. Most of the earthquakes attributed to hydaulic fracturing is due to waste-water injection, a totally separate process in the oil and gas industry — which furthermore, "only a small fraction of these disposal wells have induced earthquakes that are large enough to be of concern to the public." as also documented by the USGS.


Soil Pollution


Another big area of concern is soil pollution. In order to thoroughly evaluate whether oil and gas drilling by hydrofracking is an environmentally safe energy source, it is essential to incorporate flowback, waste disposal and accidental spills in its environmental impact assessment.



The above chart shows hydrocarbon deposits are the most prevalent contaminants found in US soil. All oil is from organic matter that is subjected to intense heat and pressure until it breaks down into hydrocarbons. By definition, a hydrocarbon is an organic chemical compound composed exclusively of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Hydrocarbons occur naturally forming the basis of crude oil, natural gas, coal, and other important energy sources. Hence, there's a direct correlation between hydrocarbons and fracking activities, in the sense that contamination may occur in the process of extracting crude oil from underground deposits using this technique.


Between 2009 and 2014 more than 21,000 individual spills involving over 175 million gallons of wastewater were reported in the 11 main oil- and gas-producing states of Alaska, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. In North Dakota alone, well operators have reported nearly 4,000 spills to the state since 2007.


Air Pollution


Another main area of concern with fracking derived pollutants is CO2 and methane. emissions. Research indicates the U.S. oil and gas industry emits 4,994 metric tons of CO2 per year added to 13 million metric tons of methane annually, a nearly 60% increase of reported EPA estimates in 2018.


This may all seem like a lot... however, it is important to mention that, industry advocates argue massive oil and gas production has historically helped us grow economically stronger — and a strong US economy equals more jobs, a strong currency and more negotiating and trading power. Moreover, during the Trump years, the US significantly contributed to the contraction of global carbon footprint, by leading international efforts in reducing CO2 emissions in 2019 — this despite revamping oil production policies since 2017 and the US stepping away from The Paris Agreement.



Solar Photovoltaic Technology


Very much like hydraulic fracturing, solar pv is not a new source of energy — it can be traced back to pre Civil War era. But, without digressing much on the early days of pv systems , I want to point out that the 1970's energy crisis catalyzed the government's efforts and commitment to develop solar energy and acclimate the public to the relatively newer technology.


Despite all the efforts of the 70's, Solar Photovoltaic technology is just now becoming mainstream, mainly thanks to 60-70% reduction in production costs in the last decade; aggressive financing options; and generous government incentives that make commercial and residential solar projects way more affordable than ever before.



Does Solar Panel Production Pose an Environmental Concern?


In short, no. Compared to the threats presented previously, the solar pv manufacturing process poses very minimal risk on soil contamination and habitat degradation — estimates for utility-scale PV systems range from only 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt. Although water is utilized in the production of PV solar panels, the process poses little to no threat to water resources, provided the waste is disposed of properly. As far as air quality, we must note there's absolutely no impact reflected from solar production.


On the other hand, disposal of obsolete or worn out solar panels will certainly pose a public health hazard. If not managed properly, solar panels sitting in dumps can leech out the toxic metals they contain into the environment and potentially get into the groundwater supply.


Commercial solar pv installation.

What are Solar Panels Made Of?


Solar Panels are essentially made up of several sheets of silicon crystals called cells. Each cell is then sandwiched by aluminum and glass layers. Pure silicon is often mixed with cadmium and lead to maximize conductivity, which in turn makes solar cells difficult and overly costly to recycle — hence the need to dispose of them in landfills. This is a real problem that needs to be proactively legislated on if governments want to completely move away from fossils and into renewables by year 2030. However, in comparison to the oil and gas alternative, the solar environmental threats are minimal and could be easily addressed.


Why The Push-back in Going 100% Renewable?


Simply stated, we have limited resources to build a robust solar industry. Compared to China, the US has practically no chance to compete with the CCP's silicon deposits and we have limited resources of cadmium and lead as well. China's silicon production in 2019 was over 4,500 metric tons, in comparison to the US's 320 metric tons. Dismantling the oil and gas industry, which is our main source of energy and puts us at the top of the chart of industrialized countries, would not only put us at a disadvantage against our most aggressive trade competitor, it would make us vulnerable and completely defenseless in the face of an opposing communist regime. That's why Chinese money controls 8 out of the 10 principal solar companies in the world.


Solar tariffs aren't new to Chinese products, as they were imposed by the Obama administration in 2012 and "another round of import duties were added in 2014."

Cheap subsidized Chinese imports were systematically dumped in the US market nearly putting out of business local solar manufacturers — as determined by the International Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). Thus, the final round of tariffs imposed by the Trump administration aimed to secure US interests in the solar market and build confidence in the manufacturing efforts of local solar companies.



Conclusion


This is strictly my personal opinion. Undoubtedly, prior environmental concerns with fracking remain intact. Whether negligent, accidental, or deliberate industrial waste leaks, oil spills and gas emissions could potentially cause long lasting adverse conditions to our soil, air and drinking water resources — that point is clear. Nevertheless, in the face of all these environmental concerns with the fracking process, we must consider that the US has historically lead the world in advancing technologies to improve fossil fuel extraction processes, while responsibly addressing known industry flaws and minimizing environmental hazards and greenhouse emissions. I consider the US has the capacity to sustain a healthy segment of the global renewable space while still keeping a responsible operation of our wealthy oil resources. An energy independent US makes our country stronger, richer and able to secure our sovereignty and that of our neighbors and allies.



MANOLO BARDEGUEZ - Welcome to my Blog. I hope the articles on this site inspire you and I encourage you to discover the benefits of going solar for yourself by clicking Go Solar. By clicking Join you can also learn how you can join our movement to connect the world to sustainable technologies and get paid handsomely by the fastest growing solar company in America. If you have any questions, contact me directly at ManoloBard@SunbrightNet.com or call me by clicking the phone icon above.






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