A gas flare burns at a frackiing site in the United States. File picture: Les Stone/Reuters
As South Africa contemplates fracking, it may wish to contemplate a small state in the heart of America.

Fracking’s first commercial use came in Oklahoma, in 1949 and existed with limited consequences for half a century. But in 2008, energy companies began to see hydraulic fracturing as a way to access cheap, natural gas deep underground.

What followed was an economic boom for the state. While the rest of the US entered the throes of an almost unprecedented recession, the unemployment rate almost scratching 10% for the first time since the Great Depression and almost every state finding their budgets stretched, Oklahoma was using hundreds of millions of tax revenues to revitalise its city.

The state built hotels, bowling alleys, food-truck parks and sleek modern towers that rose like crowns above a rising city.

Oklahoma was not alone in this boom. Cities up and down the US central corridor saw similar renaissances.

Catarina, Texas, became a miniature Johannesburg as the town with a population of 118 swelled almost overnight to 5 000 after the discovery of frackable natural gas.

Then oil prices fell and kept falling - a 60% decline from the end of 2014 to spring of 2016.

“The business model of these corporations is you extract everything as fast as possible to get the greatest dollar in the shortest time necessary,” said Cray Miller, professor of environmental science at California’s Pomona University.

“And then they leave and what that leaves is busted up streets and roadways, schools and other places that have been left in disrepair. You leave tattered communities that have on some level benefited from this process but also find themselves understandably left behind.”

Now, the unemployment rate of Oklahoma isn’t high (5%) but for the first time in 25 years, it has surpassed the national average.

And Oklahoma, which gave huge tax cuts to energy companies to incentivise business, is now facing huge budget shortfalls. Schools are cutting classes to accommodate the funding falls. Next year, the budget is expected to be $900 million short.

Across the US, the energy industry has shed over 100 000 jobs.

Even during the boom, said Miller, the benefits flowing to the local economy were limited by the fact that primarily multinational corporations have the resources to pay for fracking, and thus take direct revenues from the mineral rights.

Now, as revenues dry up, the state will be left to contend with the worst environmental impact.

“It’s earth-shattering consequences,” said Miller.

Fracking works by pumping fluid deep underground to fracture it, to allow access to the gas that would otherwise be too deep to extract economically.

Since the process was first developed in the 1940s, some have warned it could cause earthquakes.

Although oil companies dispute the science, studies have found this prediction to be devastatingly true.

Prior to the boom in 2008, Oklahoma faced an average of one to two earthquakes per year that registered above 3.0 on the Richter scale. Now, the state experiences one to two such earthquakes per day.

The Barack Obama and George W Bush administrations argued that natural gas burns fewer greenhouse gases than coal and that tapping America’s reserves could turn it into the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas”.

But although natural gas itself contributes about half as much carbon to the atmosphere as coal, the “fugitive” methane and other gases leaked out during the often poorly regulated fracking process can produce more carbon than the natural gas would save against coal.

Researchers have also concluded that fracking has polluted the groundwater in one town in Wyoming.

Weekend Argus