The process of hydraulic fracturing – shooting water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into underground wells to release natural gas – is a divisive issue: Some say it dumps chemicals into ground water supplies, others argue it causes earthquakes, and still others think it can revolutionize America’s energy industry.
Late last week, the NYT ran a short piece that cited a British seismologist saying two minor (very minor) earthquakes in northern England might have been caused by “fracking”:
The scientist, Brian Baptie, seismic project team leader with the British Geological Survey, said data from the two quakes near Blackpool — one of magnitude 2.3 on April 1, the other of magnitude 1.5 on May 27 — suggested the temblors arose from the same source. Cuadrilla Resources, a British energy company, was conducting hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations at a well nearby when the quakes occurred…
Mr. [Stephen] Horton [a seismologist at the University of Memphis] and others investigated a swarm of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, including one of magnitude 4.7, in an area of central Arkansas where fracking was being conducted. The scientists found that the earthquakes were probably caused not by fracking but by the disposal of waste liquids from the process into other wells. Those wells have since been shut down.
Environmentalists argue that fracking contaminates ground and surface water – a charge the gas companies deny. Here’s the problem: the fracking process begins with a well drilled deep underground. Horizontal passages are then drilled outward from the bottom of the well. Water, sand, and chemicals are pumped at high pressure through the horizontal wells to release natural gas, which is then collected. Gas companies argue the chemical content of the water is negligible and it has never been proven that those chemicals rise into ground water supplies. On the other hand, environmentalists say the downward drilling process, if done poorly, releases chemicals into both ground and surface water. Both arguments are strong, which is why no one can agree whether fracking is a good or bad thing.
The science is not settled; arguments are hurled back and forth by both gas companies and environmentalists. On the earthquake issue, seismologists say it’s possible fracking can cause small earthquakes: “Mr. Horton said that after looking at the British Geological Survey’s analysis of the Blackpool earthquakes, ‘the conclusions are reasonable’.” But, he continued, “the chances of getting a very large earthquake are negligible.” Meanwhile, contaminated water supplies is a hotly-debated issue: there have been cases where fracking has polluted water supplies as a result of poor oversight and procedures, but it does seem that if done correctly, fracking is not nearly as environmentally disruptive as traditional oil and gas extraction.
One thing that is settled are the benefits homegrown natural gas adds to the US energy industry. As chemist and author Rich Trzupek wrote recently:
America has become, in the eyes of energy professionals, the Saudi Arabia of natural gas thanks to shale gas. The DOE estimates that shale gas reserves alone are 750 trillion cubic feet. Combined with other domestic sources of natural gas, the United States has enough natural gas to last for over a century, and the numbers continue to climb…
In areas where shale gas drilling is happening, the good times are rolling. Not only are people making money from the energy sales, jobs are created down the line, from the companies who support drilling operations down to the service industries that provide workers with food and shelter. In eastern Pennsylvania towns that were hit hard with the decline of the steel industry are rising again. Other states with significant shale formations, like Arkansas, Texas and North Dakota tell the same stories.
There is always more to the story than environuts or self interested gas companies will tell you; the one constant thing to expect is that there are good things and bad, benefits and problems, with all aspects of the energy industry. The question then becomes – what will bring the most benefit to the largest number of people, and what is best for the US as a whole?
A consideration that does not get enough weight is security. It is not just about reducing America’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy sources now and in the future. It is about promoting the diversity and security of the world’s energy supply by opening up many new sources of production in many new parts of the world. Europe, for example, may have a shale gas and oil boom of its own, reducing its dependence on both Russia and the Middle East.
Failing to frack increases the chance we must fight. Let’s learn to frack as cleanly and carefully as possible — but let’s get it done. Right now, it seems – despite some entirely justified anger from people who live in the frack zone – that extracting America’s vast natural gas resources is the right way to proceed.