While finishing up an evening of dining and holiday shopping in downtown Pittsburgh, the commotion of gathering crowds and police lights outside the convention center captured my attention. Across the street from a conference of energy industry officials and staff, a small group was beating drums while protesting against the industrial development of the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania.

The developing shale oil industry has quickly become a hotbed of controversy as the process of shale extraction has been dramatically revolutionized with the development of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” This is where a highly pressurized mixture of water, sand, and additives are pumped into sedimentary rock to allow for the extraction of fossil fuels. Unsurprisingly, it is the additives that are at the heart of the controversy.  But just what are they and why are people so upset about them?

The fluid used for fracking is composed of 99.5% water and sand while the rest is a mixture of chemicals, some of which are contaminants, such as benzene and acid.  Many environmental organizations, like Greenpeace and Riverkeepers, have the misguided fear that the fracking process will result in contamination of groundwater, even though it has been proven that fracking itself shows no definitive link to contamination as drill lines are cemented to prevent contact between fracking fluids and water supplies. While detractors consider this industrial development to be an ecological nightmare, many believe the shale industry to be the much-needed boost to the economy that Americans have been craving.

The Marcellus Shale formation, which could potentially produce 5.5 billion barrels of oil, also has the promise of producing revenue and jobs. According to a report prepared by Pennsylvania State University, the shale industry could produce $13 billion of added value, provide nearly 175,000 jobs annually and present $12 billion of state and local tax revenue over the next decade in Pennsylvania alone. A much larger shale formation underneath Utah and Wyoming contains 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil, rivaling the reserves of Saudi Arabia.

“Some are even talking about an era of ‘energy independence’ for the Americas, based on the immense conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon resources located there,” said Khalil Al Falih, the chief executive of Aramco (a major Saudi oil company) while revealing his concerns on the growing competition from the shale industry.

The prospect of the United States becoming a chief exporter of shale oil is riveting considering the current state of the economy. With national unemployment sitting at 8.6%, the promise of job availability and manufacturing should be music to the ears of all, but unfortunately, not everyone is humming the same tune.

Greenpeace has emphatically claimed that the shale industry would contribute to an increase in greenhouse gases and global warming.

“It’s pathetic,” remarked Senator Orrin Hatch in a 2008 interview. “Environmentalists are very happy having us dependent on foreign oil. They’re unhappy with us developing our own. What they forget to say is that shipping fuel all the way from the Middle East has a big greenhouse gas footprint too.”

In November 2010, Pittsburgh passed a city ordinance drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to counter the statewide growth of the industry. With this passage effectively banning fracking within city limits, Pittsburgh became the first city to recognize the “legally binding rights of nature.”  Whatever those are.

The growth of the shale industry has ignited a hope for renewed American prosperity.  While the cries of contamination are ridiculous, there are some legitimate concerns.  In fact, the real danger of fracking is a lack of safety protocol. Current precautions must be maintained to prevent tanker trucks from spilling chemical compounds or wastewater, which can contain trace amounts of radiation stirred up by the extraction process. But these precautions are standard; it would be in poor judgment to completely neglect the clear monetary benefits of utilizing our natural resources in a time when people need jobs and the economy needs a boost.

Americans are perfectly capable of taking risks and finding solutions to the problems we encounter.  The real dangers of the shale industry should be addressed openly and in a constructive way that produces results rather than a moratorium. It would be much more prudent for our government to invest tax dollars in regulating and inspecting a private energy industry with real promise than to throw away $500 million on a pipe dream like Solyndra.

Stephan Yenca // Point Park University // @SYenca