Is “Acidizing” the Next Fracking?

For the last several years, opponents of oil and natural gas have tried to convince the public that the “fracking”—hydraulic fracturing—used in much of modern production is “unsafe.” As claim after claim has been debunked and debunked, the “oil and gas production shouldn’t be allowed because it involves fracking” argument has lost some momentum.

Unfortunately but predictably, a new argument has taken its place. In my home state of California, we have an opportunity to produce on the order of $1.5 trillion in oil—that’s more than the lifetime income of a million people. But we’re not supposed to do it because . . . it involves “acidizing.”

Acidizing has been a standard, everyday part of oil production for over 100 years. It involves using an acid, such as hydrochloric or hydrofluoric, to dissolve various kinds of of buildup on the oil rig or in rock formations. The acid reacts with the buildup and becomes inert (non-reactive)—no big deal. Transporting the acid to get it on site is more of a concern, but American industry is incredibly good at transporting hazardous materials. That’s why you’re much more likely to die from texting while driving (your own or someone else’s) than from a truck of hydrofluoric acid dumping on you.

The acidizing fear mongers neglect to mention—or to know—that hydrofluoric acid is used in, among other things, the production of wind turbines. Wind energy requires materials called rare earth metals to work. But rare earth metals are challenging to mine—because they exist in low concentrations lumped together with a lot of other elements, many of which are highly toxic. Getting these out of the ground and separated requires a lot of industry and a lot of chemistry, which means a lot of acid, done right near the surface with far more hazardous materials than fracking or acidizing involve. This is one reason why rare earth mining is far more hazardous than oil production.

I explained this point on a Berkeley panel last night. Dissappointingly, the environmental activists on the panel had no interest in this safety issue—indeed, activist Robert Collier dismissed it without explanation as “laughable” and say that we shouldn’t discuss it.

That’s because Collier and others don’t actually care about safety—they care about finding expedient ways to oppose fossil fuels (and, more broadly, development). One of the most expedient is to find a scary-sounding process and label it as dangerous because it can be misused or abused. But any technology is dangerous when abused—that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be allowed to use it.