With so many questions and challenges concerning our energy future and climate change, domestic natural gas has taken off as a “greener” alternative to burning oil and coal. Recent advancements in drilling have vastly expanded the size of the natural gas market. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (also, frac’ing) as it is often referred, is the process of stimulating wells to extract natural gas (and oil). It involves breaking shale several thousand feet below the surface of the earth by injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressures to shatter the rock and release the valuable resources. EPA projects that 20% of domestic natural gas will come from shale by 2020. However, as more and more fracking operations crop up from coast to coast, questions of their real environmental costs are also growing.
Fracking has been going on in the United States for more than 50 years, but recent advancements in horizontal fracturing technology have created an explosion in the number of wells and have brought fracking east to states like New York and Pennsylvania. In a sense, fracking has created a modern day gold rush. And because local and state economies have been under extreme economic pressure due to the recession, many officials and locals have-- until recently--welcomed the added revenue from permits and taxes that move in with the drilling companies, not to mention job creation.
A new source of clean energy right in our own back yards, just waiting to be released? Like most things that sound too good to be true, fracking has some serious side effects. Here is my non-scientific summary of the risks.
The chemicals used in the water mixture that is injected into the wells is toxic, but most drilling companies will not disclose the actual make up of their concoctions, labeling them trade secrets. There are concerns about how these chemicals are handled, the impacts they are having underground, and the potential for spills on the ground when they are eventually transported to waste treatment plants. There have been many complaints about fracking chemicals being released into drinking water supplies and because there are convenient Bush-era exclusion to water-safety regulations in the 2005 Energy Bill, fracking companies are not taking all of the precautions they could. (Note that Halliburton is heavily involved in fracking.)
Fracking is a very water intensive process and in areas where water supply is low, residents are concerned that operations can cause scarcity issues.
Manmade retention ponds or pits are used to hold the water/chemical/sand mixture that break the shale, creating giant pools containing toxins like chloride, barium and strontium in the middle of rural lands and forests. There have been reports of wildlife mistaking these ponds as natural bodies of water and being poisoned. In one recent story, cattle were quarantined based on concerns of sending contaminated meat to market after the animals were thought to have been drinking water from a leaking pit adjacent to the farm.
Creation of new underground pathways
There are concerns that new underground pathways will transport not only the chemicals involved in fracking process itself, but also any other spills or plumes that happen to intersect them.
Methane gas leaks
Methane is one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Scientists have documented that methane from fracking can leak and traveled through underground pathways and eventually be released into the atmosphere. .
Fracking Studies Underway
A 2004 study by EPA showed that fracking was not a risk to groundwater, but with the swath of complaints that have arisen lately, EPA announced in late 2009 that it will revisit this finding. EPA is currently in the process of further defining the study that is set to take place starting this fall and into 2012 by holding public meetings in impacted areas. As Pat Coyne mentioned, one meeting that was supposed to take place in upstate New York last week was canceled when 8,000 people were expected to attend. Organizers are now working to find a larger venue for the meeting.
The growing cases related to fracking operations are quite troubling. When I think about it, I get concerned about whether there will ever be clean, safe energy! It is quite depressing and overwhelming if you let your mind wander… It will be interesting to see where this goes. With any new technology, there are unforeseen risks and it seems like we are just cracking the surface on those involved in fracking …no pun intended. Okay, I realized the pun and left it in so maybe it is intended.
What do you think? Is fracking the next big environmental issue?