Experts debate the pros and cons of fracking

Natural gas has come to Maine, and it’s here to stay. Pipelines are being laid across Kennebec Valley, providing a cheaper alternative to oil.
The method used to extract natural gas, however, remains a controversial topic. Hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—involves drilling wells and injecting fluids to break the shale beneath and release gas.
Ask an economist, a geologist and an environmentalist what they think of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and you will get three very different answers.
Assistant Professor of Economics and Associate Director of the Goldfarb Center Sahan Dissanayake handpicked three such experts to debate the merits and pitfalls of fracking on the evening of Nov. 6 in front of a full Ostrove Auditorium. The event, called “Hydraulic Fracking: Economic Boom or Natural Disaster?” was this year’s installment of the Goldfarb Center’s William R. and Linda D. Cotter Debate series.
Dissanayake gave each panelist 12 minutes to present his or her knowledge of and perspective on fracking, and then opened up the floor to questions from the audience, which generated some thought-provoking answers.
The first speaker, Tim Carr, is a geology professor at West Virginia University. Fracking is nothing new, Carr said; Americans have been doing it for decades, at first using excess napalm and airplane-engines-turned-compressors. What has changed, however, is our ability to find and extract natural gas with such precision, which Carr called “smart drilling.” We are living in an age, he reflected, where students can be sitting in class and be steering wells.
Next on deck was Erin Mansur ’95, a business professor at Dartmouth and research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research who studied Biology at Colby. Mansur brought his knowledge of the interplay between fracking and local employment, local wages, power plant emissions and electricity markets. “Understanding power markets is understanding storage,” Mansur said.
Jessica Helm of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, rounded out the introductory talks. Helm currently works on the Sierra Club’s Grassroots Network Hydrofracking Team and is a member of the organization’s Board of the Directors. According to Helm, groundwater contamination is not actually a significant concern with fracking, contrary to popular belief.
Fracking refuse is exempt from being classified as hazardous waste, Helm said. She also argued that natural gas displaces renewable energy and increases overall energy demand.
The real debate began during the question-and-answer session. Does the key to energy security lie in energy diversity? How does our standard of living correlate with the energy we consume? The United States has a lot of natural gas, but does not export this resource; is this fact forcing other countries to continue burning coal, which is the cheapest fuel on the available?
While the debate remained tame, the panelists’ body language revealed their disagreement with one another over certain points. Regardless of whether you believe fracking represents an economic boom, a natural disaster, or something in between, what became very clear from the debate was the wide diversity in opinions on this issue.