To Frack or Not to Frack is Difficult to Decide

The impoundment berm bordering a Marcellus Shale gas play drilling pad in western Pennsylvania

Matt Damon and the 2012 film “The Promised Land” was a story about it. The Rolling Stones song “Doom and Gloom” is a song about it. And voters in Colorado and Ohio have weighed in on it. Lot of attention but nobody has the answer to the question to frack or not to frack?

“It’s a very complex subject,” said Sharon Anderson, environmental program leader for Cornell University Cooperative Extension. “The answer depends on a person’s role. For example, if you are a large landowner and you are financially secure, you might have one opinion about fracking. But if you are a small farmer and the amount you could get as a signing bonus makes the difference between keeping and losing the farm, you might feel another way about fracking.”

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers by forcing large amounts of water, sand and chemicals, some of them toxic, into the ground. This process allows access to natural gas reserves that were previously unreachable by traditional means. Supporters tout the value of having access to natural gas while critics point to the environmental concerns associated with the process.

“Fracking isn’t a new process, but because of new technologies, fracking has allowed drillers to reach gas sources previously prohibited because of the depth of drilling needed to reach the gas or density of the shale,” said Bryan Swistock, Penn State Cooperative Extension water resource associate.

Interest in fracking also intensified because of increased efforts to develop new energy sources. As a result, the number of wells in areas where gas is present has increased and along with this increase has been an equal rise in the public’s interest, questions and concerns about fracking.

“The long-term impacts on water quality are unknown,” Swistock said. “It appears there is a relatively low risk, but still you should take precaution.”

So what should landowners and communities impacted by fracking do?
One of Cooperative Extension’s roles is to provide unbiased education to all and information about fracking – pro and con – is no exception. A number of state Cooperative Extension websites have been developed, especially in the Midwest and Northeast where conditions are right for large natural gas reserves. Extension’s role is to examine the risks and the rewards and to allow people to consider the facts.

And as Anderson said, because questions about fracking can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, avenues where facts pro and con can be presented, are critical and necessary.

“Some things we know and there is a lot we don’t know about fracking,” Anderson said. “It’s difficult to look at how fracking has affected other areas because you have to consider climate and geography and processes used,” Anderson said, adding that what to do remains a complicated answer to a complicated question.

For information on understanding the risks and the rewards of fracking, use the following Cooperative Extension resources:


Released November 11, 2013
Sources: Sharon Anderson, Cornell University Cooperative Extension,
Bryan Swistock, Penn State Cooperative Extension,
Writer: Robin Cheeley,