Environmentalists, local communities, and civil actors maintain that hydrofracking in its current unregulated form is intolerable for our environment and public health. The process is familiar and infamous. After extractors drill a well, they pump millions of gallons of water, sand, and various chemicals into it to fracture the shale the gas is stored in and allow the gas to flow freely out of the well. The Sierra Club estimates that 80-300 tons of chemicals may be used in hydrofracking, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. While shale gas can serve as a stepping-stone towards renewables, its production could leave our aquifers decimated with chemicals that pose significant health risks. Benzene in particular is known to cause cancer, neurological harm, and adverse developmental effects in pregnant women.
Such potential health risks, coupled with the environmental impact of the physical aspect of drilling, have compelled the widespread anti-fracking movement among environmentalists and local communities alike. Not all of the popular dissent calls for an absolute ban on hydrofracking, however. Civil society would not be so opposed to fracking if gas companies would disclose details of the extraction process and attempt to mitigate the harmful effects. Prominent environmental groups, such as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), would simply prefer if gas companies put such effective safeguards in place. The NRDC lists out some of these proposed regulations which include barring the most sensitive lands and watersheds from hydrofracking, reducing methane leaks by fixing plants' pipelines, and ensuring that local communities take part in the zoning and planning of fracking sites.
The prevention of methane leaks is an imperative measure if we hope to curb our overall greenhouse gas contributions, as methane has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 25 (compared to Carbon Dioxide's GWP of 1). If the Obama administration wants to expand upon its recently proposed commitment to tackling climate change, it could use its executive prerogative to encourage the developing shale gas industry to prevent these leakages. The administration should also seek to limit other carbon emissions from natural gas. Natural gas already burns cleaner than coal with fewer CO2 emissions, and the implementation of these carbon caps could make it even cleaner. Renewables will not be at their full potential capacity for years. As we press forward towards the clean energy infrastructure, we do need a "stepping stone" fuel that produces the most minimal emissions possible. Natural gas will of course not be the panacea for our overall climate problem- any solution must eventually come from an eclectic mix wind, solar, nuclear, and other non-emitting energies.