As the United States searches for answers to its enormous propensity to consume fuel, oil and gas producing companies are constantly looking for new sources of energy. Currently, one of the most promising technologies for producing natural gas concerns the process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." This technique releases natural gas that has been trapped inside shale rock for millions of years and allows the company to then easily extract the gas from the ground. However, the by-product of such a process is considered dangerous and even toxic to those who live and work near the site of the fracking. Furthermore, environmental concerns are long-lasting in regards to its impact on the drinking water and wildlife in the region. Because of these concerns, fracking has come under increased scrutiny even as companies look to ramp up production of natural gas to satiate the seemingly never-ending demand for energy. If these problems can be alleviated, there may be a place for fracking in the world's energy policies and independence from Middle East countries that currently control the world's oil supply may be a very attainable goal.
Hydraulic Fracturing / Gas from Fracking
The Process of Hydraulic Fracturing
Most of the natural gas that is used throughout the world comes from underground deposits that can be easily accessed through traditional drilling methods. As this vast amount of available gas has become more depleted, companies have looked for alternate ways to release the more inaccessible gas that is trapped in the huge horizontal layer of loose rock known as shale usually more than a mile beneath the ground. The gas trapped within these large rock formations has been known about for at least one hundred years, but the technology did not exist to retrieve it until recently. The processes of hydraulic fracturing and vertical drilling were first implemented commercially in 1949 by the oil field services provider Halliburton. Though it has long been used in conventional drilling when a well begins to run dry, but it has only recently been available due to the improvements in the technology.
In traditional drilling methods, a pipe is sunk straight down into gas deposits and the gas extracted through that pipe. But Halliburton's technology allows the drill to change direction so that it can run along the horizontal shale formations. The horizontal well pipes blast holes through the rock and the shale is further fractured by a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals injected at very high pressure. The combination of the blasts and the fluids forced through the rock create fissures that release the natural gas. The fracking fluids flow back up the well through steel pipes encased in concrete to the surface and the natural gas follows it out of the shale while the sand remains in the fissures to hold them open and allow the gas to continue to flow.
Problems with Fracking
There are a variety of problems related to fracking, many of which involve the chemicals that are present in the fracking fluid. Many of these chemicals can have negative effects on humans who come in contact with them. Similarly, methane gas has a tendency to accumulate in and around wells where fracking had been used. In areas of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York where fracking was prominent, methane concentrations in the drinking water near oil and gas fields was 19.2 and 64 mg/L, compared to an average level of 1.1 mg/L in water wells where fracking had not occurred. These levels were sufficiently high to raise the potential for explosions and fires in the wells.
The water and other fluids used in fracking must also be properly disposed of and there are no simple solutions for this. A typical fracking can use 800,000 gallons of surface water to produce 4 million gallons of fracking fluid. Most of this water is disposed of in land farm facilities and injection wells. Municipal and industrial water treatment facilities are also being researched for their potential in treating the water. Whatever the process used the large amount of water used and the chemicals that are included make the treatment of water a major concern. The water reclaimed from the fracking process also contains low level radiation that is present in soils, water, and food. Such naturally occurring radioactive material may be found in the drill cutting, natural gas, and water associated with the production of natural gas from shale formations. Higher concentrations of radiation can occur where sediment is found on the fracking equipment and exposure can occur when repair work is performed.
While fracking is generally offered as a way to produce more energy efficiently, it may actually lead to more greenhouse gases being emitted than other methods would. One estimate of the emission of greenhouse gases suggests that when natural gas is obtained from fracking it produces 2.4 times the greenhouse gases than just the combustion of natural gas. Furthermore greenhouse gas emissions from the production of natural gas by fracking methods may be up to 60% more than for diesel fuel and gasoline and fracking may be worse than mountain-top removal coal mining in terms of the consequences of global warming.
Further compounding the problem is a complete lack of federal oversight to monitor the inherent risks associated with fracking. The EPA commenced a study to determine whether the Safe Drinking Water Act's Underground Injection Control regulations should apply to fracking. Ultimately after several industry groups lobbied Congress against such oversight, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted all fracking with the exception of diesel fuel from the definition of underground injection. This effectively removed federal oversight of fracking and left individual states to attempt to regulate the process how each sees fit, creating a labyrinth of different rules and regulations.
Solutions to Problems
The natural gas industry maintains that it has taken great pains to ensure that it is performing hydraulic fracturing in accordance with all regulations and that, when done safely, fracking poses no health risk to the general public, either through drinking water or otherwise. However, the companies are not merely ignoring the problem of methane being leaked into the water supply and even the surrounding air. A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sampled air over natural gas wells and estimated leakage at around 4%. Companies are currently experimenting with cost effective methods to capture the methane and plug the leaks. This may eventually require the federal government to step in and provide guidance in the form of regulations governing the leakage, since the costs may deemed prohibitive by the companies.
The problem of water being used in large volumes can be addressed through effective recycling techniques. A fracking operation in Texas uses on-location distilling units that heat and separate the brine from the water that can then be used in future fracturing projects. A process such as this can allow an 80% recovery of fractured fluid. Limiting exposure to radiation is a trickier proposition. The dense steel that is used in the fracking process naturally inhibits exposure to alpha and beta radiation while limiting the amount of gamma radiation that is transmitted. Perhaps the best thing that can be done in response to radiation is to limit access to the fracking site. The farther removed one is from the source of radiation, the lower the risk of exposure.
The contention over the fracking process will not subside as long as there is the threat of water contamination, however. This issue has led many areas, including Australia, France, certain provinces of Canada and states within the U.S., to issue moratoriums on new fracking wells. Many residents in areas where wells are still operating loudly object to their continued existence. Though the industry continues to maintain that there is no real threat to the general public from the practice of fracking, there is ample evidence to contradict this. As long as it is to their advantage economically, the industry will continue to exploit shale through fracking techniques, unless the potential health effects become impossible to ignore.
Economic Impact of Fracking
The economic potential for fracking is enormous in the United States and other parts of the world. In the U.S., as recently as 2003, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, had predicted that the country would soon need to import significant amounts of natural gas from overseas. However, the presence of gas in these shale formations has drastically altered that calculation. It is believed that there may be enough natural gas underneath parts of the East Coast to satisfy the nation's gas needs for the next fifty or one hundred years. When one considers the fact that natural gas is cleaner burning fuel than other fossil fuels and adds fewer greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the economic benefits only increase.
The economic benefits to the oil and gas drilling companies are obvious. Every bit of gas that can be extracted from the shale is more money in the pockets of these companies and their shareholders. Gas that was considered unreachable only a few decades ago is now potential income for them. It is well worth the cost to undertake the fight against environmentalists and even government entities who may want to restrict their drilling capacity. For them it is even worth the occasional fine and negative publicity from the shoddy work that may ensue. Rather than contracting in the face of concerns over environmental and safety issues, fracking continues to expand into new regions that had been untouched previously.
Not everyone in these regions is part of the economic boom associated with fracking, however. One of the largest regions being exploited for its natural gas deposits is the Marcellus Shale, a shale formation that expands from West Virginia and Ohio through Pennsylvania and New York. In the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock over sixty wells were drilled in a nine square mile area. Most of the residents of this poor rural community – where one in seven people are unemployed – were eager to accept the offers of $25 per acre for the drilling rights for five full years plus a share of royalties when gas was pumped from the representatives of the Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation.
These wells in Dimock ultimately performed well beyond even Cabot executives' expectations, producing almost $60 million of gas per year. However, problems soon began to arise. A truck overturned and spilled 800 gallons of diesel fuel in 2009 and then up to 8,000 gallons of Halliburton-produced fracking fuel leaked from faulty supply lines, seeping into wetlands and stream later in the same year. But the worst problems stemmed from contaminated well water, which eventually led to at least one and maybe more wells actually exploding and many residents complaining that their water was flammable. Finally the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection stepped in and forced Cabot to suspend its drilling in the region and fined them $360,000 for contaminating groundwater and failing to fix leaks. Though Cabot contends that the methane in the water was not caused by fracking and existed before they got there, they are facing several lawsuits.
Fracking and Safety
The incidents in Dimock, PA were not the only of their kind. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources blamed a nearby fracking site for an explosion in a suburban Cleveland house where methane gas had built up under the basement. Such incidents have led authorities to be wary of fracking in the fragile state of California. The concern there is that injecting fluids at high pressure into underground fissures could cause a problem at a fault line, which could potentially trigger an earthquake. A bill has been introduced into the state House that would require the industry to map where it was fracking and indicate any seismic fault within five miles of a drilling site, but that requirement was removed at the industry's insistence.
While earthquakes might be a bit far-fetched, the experience of the residents of Dimock shows the potential hazards of fracking. When the chemicals leak into the water supply, the potential for damage is extremely high, both to the environment and residents. A report known as the Endocrine Disruption Exchange found that 353 of the 632 chemicals used in natural gas fracking had one or more negative effects on human health. Roughly 75% of the chemicals were found to be harmful to the eyes, skin, and other sensory organs and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems; 40-50% could affect the brain and nervous system, immune and cardiovascular system and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and other mutations.
As has happened in Dimock and other areas around the world, methane leakage into the water supply is of great concern. A study conducted in 2011 found that 51 of 60 drinking water wells tested across the shale regions of Pennsylvania and New York had concentrations of methane, but these concentrations were higher when the wells were substantially closer to natural gas wells. In these drilling areas the average methane concentration fell within the defined action level for hazard mitigation recommended by the U.S. Office of the Interior. These values point to a serious problem with water contamination near fracking sites.
Oil and gas companies have attempted to mitigate these results by employing various safety measures. Most fracking is a closed-system process that is completely computerized with field workers kept away from the site. The drilling units are solid steel pipes encased in thick concrete to eliminate or keep the leakage to a minimum. The industry itself also disputes the contention that fracking is inherently dangerous. They point to a 2004 EPA study that concluded "the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coalbed methane wells poses little or no threat to underground drinking water sources." A 1998 study by the Ground Water Protection Council also found that "there was no evidence to support claims that public health is at risk as a result of hydraulic fracturing."
However, anecdotal evidence seems to confirm that there is something amiss with groundwater in fracking regions. Many other studies, like the ones mentioned previously, also confirm the suspicions about higher methane levels. Also many states have taken action and concluded that fracking is to blame for many problems with local drinking water and have levied appropriate fines on the fracking industry. These problems will continue to be litigated and regulated in the coming years.
The Future of Fracking
The appetite for energy shows no signs of receding any time soon and as people continue to require sources of energy for everything from powering vehicles to heating homes, new resources will need to be consumed. Furthermore, with the growing concern around global warming concentrating the search on cleaner sources, natural gas will continue to take a more prominent role in energy policies. It burns more cleanly than both coal and oil and there is an abundance buried beneath the surface of the earth. However, most of that natural gas is locked in shale formations and can only be reached via processes such as hydraulic fracturing. Today more than 90% of natural gas wells use fracking. In 1996, only 2% of U.S. domestic natural gas production was shale gas, but by 2006 that percentage had increased to 6%.
Natural gas will surely continue to be a major part of energy policy in the United States and throughout the world. Increasingly, that means that fracking will also play a major role in all energy policies, because it is becoming more difficult to find easily accessible natural gas wells. But the increased reliance upon fracking may not yield the hoped-for greenhouse gas benefits. The presence of more methane gas as a result of fracking will place a greater strain on the environment, since methane is 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Of course, the potential environmental hazards are just part of the problem with methane. The natural gas and oil industry will have to find new methods for releasing the gas reservoirs within the shale formations without disrupting drinking water supplies in the region. The potential health risks involved are currently too great to allow fracking to resume uninhibited and many countries and states are taking steps to implement stronger regulations. While fracking appears to have a reliable future in natural gas production, it may take a far different form then the one it currently exhibits.
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