By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
2/26/2013 (2 years ago)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
America is on track to become a great producer of oil in the decades to come. Within the next ten years, we will likely export oil, rather than import. This is made possible by the practice of fracking, which allows drillers to extract untapped energy reserves deep beneath the crust. Yet the question remains, will it lower prices at the pump? More importantly, is it the right thing to do?
LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Fracking is the process of injecting high pressure chemicals and steam into the earth for the purpose of cracking rocks beneath the crust. When those rocks fracture, they can release pockets of natural gas and oil that are pumped to the surface.
The amount of energy waiting for extraction is so great that with the rapid, planned expansion that is now ongoing, the United States is just years away from becoming a net exporter of oil and gas, rather than an importer.
This bodes well for our economy and our foreign policy. No longer will we be inexorably linked to political developments in the Middle East, and the influx of cash could help to ease our national deficit.
However, fracking has its detractors and many claim the practice can pollute water supplies as well as cause earthquakes. Furthermore, it leads the country down the road of future oil dependency rather than towards alternatives, which some say are necessary to offset the advance of global warming.
There's also the question of profits, and if in a tight refining market, will increased supplies in raw materials lead to lower costs?
Proponents of fracking say the practice is safe, although they acknowledge that small earthquakes have been caused by the it. Fortunately, the quakes are too small to be felt over a wide area and have done no significant damage. Of greater concern is if fracking damages water supplies.
Several viral videos filmed in areas where fracking is prevalent show flaming water coming out of faucets, the product of natural gas contamination and a flame. That these water supplies are contaminated is beyond question. What remains unresolved is if fracking is to blame.
Proponents of fracking say the procedure is done far deeper than most people realize, so deep that it is actually impossible for groundwater supplies to be contaminated. However, they do acknowledge that if mistakes are made and if equipment fails, pollution can occur. Air pollution can also occur at the site of the well.
As for scientific studies, they conflict. Some studies say yes, fracking pollutes, including one done by the EPA, and still others say no.
Despite the inconclusive answers, the nation seems to be barreling ahead into fracking regardless. Our insatiable demand for energy and high prices at the pump have oil producers scrambling to drill. It does not seem to matter that the same water we give to our ranch animals and use to water our crops, could be polluted.
Once extracted, the oil we take will need to be refined into gasoline. This is the great bottleneck in the supply chain. Most refineries are old and must make do with aging infrastructure. New refineries are very difficult to build because of tight environmental regulations. This means that even in times of ample oil supply, a disruption in refining capacity will cause a spike in prices.
These spikes do occur. In states like California, home to less than two dozen refineries and requiring a special summer blend, the state is susceptible to supply disruptions.
Refineries have been enjoying good times. Profits at Texas-based Valero were up 22 percent in the last quarter of 2012. They were not alone in posting records. With such tremendous profits, it's difficult to imagine an incentive to do anything different.
Still, the basic economic laws apply. As prices remain high, there also remains an incentive to increase production. That's what's leading the dive into fracking, and the eventual stockpiling and export of massive oil reserves that will someday soon occur.
Beyond the world of supply and demand, there are other considerations. The cost of gasoline is not the same as its price. Eventually, as supplies increase prices will trend downwards. Another era of cheap gas is approaching. That means bigger cars, a return of gas guzzlers, and more pollution. It happened in the 1990's as increased prosperity caused Americans to ditch their fuel-efficient economy cars for the iconic Hummers and other sport utility vehicles that became popular over the last twenty years.
Now, a trend towards hybrid and electric cars will probably reverse as gas become cheap once again.
Of course, hybrids and electrics stand little chance of catching on since they are priced at a premium. Most consumers realize that buying a fuel efficient all-gas car is cheaper over the long run than paying the premium on a hybrid.
However, the cost of this reversal is great. Although a few Americans still insist that global warming is a myth, scientific data from around the world confirms the climate is trending warmer. As it does, extreme weather becomes increasingly common. That includes both severe storms, droughts in some areas, flooding in others, and even more severe snowstorms colder places. Global warming doesn't just mean hotter average temperatures, it means wilder weather.
It does not matter what people believe in this case. Science is true whether you believe it or not. What is up for debate is how much humans are contributing to global warming as a result of their love for fossil fuels.
Rather than decreasing our use of fossil fuels, which unquestionably belch tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, we are about to increase it in a big way. Is this moral? If humans are contributing to dangerous climate change, should we then engage in behavior that will exacerbate problems rather than alleviate them? Are we not charged with being stewards of the Earth?
Still, this is a difficult sell when most religious conservatives continue to doubt global warming and see liberal machinations behind the banner. The left's hijacking of the issue does us no favors when the topic is both real and serious and must be addressed with open eyes.
Unfortunately, the profits and jobs to be derived from an oil boom are almost too good to pass up. Weaning ourselves from foreign energy also means less likelihood for foreign involvement. That means less conflict, less war, and more peace. It's hard to leave such a morsel on the table. The economic benefits are also very desirable. The revenues and the jobs are enough to return our nation to prosperity, something we all yearn to see after five years of deep recession on Main Street.
Wall Street, which suffered a much shorter recession, is also keen on the development. Oil is a fantastic investment opportunity for the future.
Ultimately, we are presented with a significant moral question. Do we engage in behavior that could be harmful to the environment, in exchange for substantial economic benefits? History predicts that our answer will be yes. Yet, history is replete with cautionary tales about those who did not learn to live in harmony with their environment.
Mesopotamia was once fertile and green, but climate change which occurred thousands of years ago, turning the region into desert. Great civilizations failed to cope and collapsed. The Maya expanded rapidly, and filled the jungles of Central America, but persistent drought exacerbated by intensive agricultural practices brought about collapse of their city states. Easter Island, became so overpopulated that the people denuded the landscape, to the point of cutting down the last tree on the island for food. They failed to find a sustainable manner of living and were reduced to cannibalism.
What will we do?
I think we know the answer already. Tragically, its status as a moral question matters to few, but hey, mental gymnastics, record profits, and cheap gas will assuage our collective conscience for at least a generation or more -- so why worry?
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