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In ‘The Fracking Debate,’ Author Carefully Treads into ‘Caustic Terrain'

Ask anyone familiar with the oil and natural industry, and he or she is likely to agree that the middle ground can sometimes be hard to find in the argument for or against high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking), let alone the thin line that often separates fact and fiction.

Daniel Raimi, a senior researcher at Resources for the Future and a professor of energy policy at the University of Michigan, acknowledges as much in the opening pages of his new book, “The Fracking Debate,” released in December by Columbia University Press. Before taking on the project, Raimi admits he was “hesitant to wade into the caustic terrain that characterizes much of the debate over fracking.”

Given the protests, courtroom battles, truth-stretching on both sides and the real world implications of unconventional development, “caustic terrain” might even be an understatement. Despite that, Raimi visited nearly every major oil and gas producing region in the United States between 2013 and 2015 to learn more about the issues that have defined the debate and what could come next as it unfolds.

The result is a meticulously researched, yet simplified and thoughtful book that lends a balanced tone to an expansive, complex and polarizing topic. It’s unlike some of the other well-received books that have cropped up in recent years to give an in-depth account of unconventional production’s meteoric rise and the personalities that have factored into that.

The book is broken into 12 straightforward chapters that set out to answer -- or at least provide more clarity -- on some of the unconventional revolution’s most pervasive and bedeviling questions, such as whether fracking contaminates water and how it might affect climate change. Raimi doesn’t wade so much into the debate as he tries to parcel out the issues to shine more light on them. While there’s not much new information for those with a deep knowledge of the industry, the book is a well-rounded refresher and a fine primer for anybody new to the debate, or for those simply seeking more information.

From the outset, Raimi is clear that he doesn’t have a crystal ball and states clearly that his goal is to present “a full view of shale development,” reminding us as the book’s subtitle does, that fracking has its “risks, benefits and uncertainties.”

Raimi points out through much of the book that when it comes to something as complex as oil and natural gas extraction, and what that means for the nation’s economy, energy portfolio, environment and politics, that the truth, or some version of it anyhow, does not appear in black and white, but rather in a more nuanced shade of gray.

For many involved in the energy industry, some of the subject matter treads over well-worn ground. He notes, for example, that the source rock often targeted by unconventional drilling is thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, while freshwater supplies are but a few hundred feet below it. On the in-between are various layers of impermeable rock, making it virtually impossible for fracking to contaminate water. On the flip side, although it’s rare, if a well is cased and cemented improperly, it is possible for methane to migrate into the water supply.

When it does happen, fracking is often falsely maligned by its opponents for contaminating water. While the word is tossed about as the catchall culprit,  no distinction is made between how stimulation works and a poorly constructed well that’s expected to be engineered to the highest standards.

Raimi also writes that the economic effects of the shale boom “have been enormous,” saying the boom has brought “big money” to many regions across the United States. He acknowledges that natural gas has also had a hand in displacing coal, which produces roughly twice as much carbon dioxide when it’s burned for power.

But the benefits might not always be so cut and dry. The economic impacts, which have included lower consumer energy prices, encourage more consumption and the possibility of higher emissions, especially in areas where less carbon-intensive power sources, such as renewables or nuclear, are being displaced.

However, Raimi cautions that the issue of scale in the debate is a crucial one to consider when it comes not just to emissions, but to water contamination, earthquakes, regulations, economics and other issues.

“With the hundreds of thousands of existing oil and gas wells in the United States and the additional tens of thousands that are drilled and fracked each year, it is virtually inevitable that some scale of environmental damage will occur,” Raimi writes. “But how large are those risks, how widespread are the damages when they occur?

“Based on existing evidence, it looks as though fracking is unlikely to cause water contamination at a scale that would affect entire cities,” he continues. “After over 100 years of companies drilling and blowing stuff up underground, the evidence of contamination affecting thousands or millions of people simply isn’t there.”

No matter how profound the benefits, or exactly how much risk comes with steady shale development, Raimi stresses that fracking is likely to continue well into the future, barring some widespread and unforeseen change in public policy.

Moreover, as fracking is still very much “being defined in the public imagination,” Raimi consistently implores his reader to remember that both the debate and the policymaking process should be well informed. His book goes a long way toward aiding that goal. 

The book, published as part of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy Series, is available in hardcover and electronic format on the publisher’s website and elsewhere online. 

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