I’ll warn you guys now, I’m functioning on three cups of coffee and a whole package of Double-Stuff Oreo’s, so bear with me.
I broke out my tried and true Recipe for a Writing Nightmare two-ish weeks ago. Turns out, it was way more productive than I thought it would be. It’s mostly because the “General Internet Shenanigans” part was actually useful in helping me find a topic for my argument essay assignment. And yes, I’m still working on the swearing, which is why the word “shenanigans” is now a part of my vocabulary. I like it though, it’s a fun word to say. Shenanigans.
Anyway, General Internet Shenanigans (say it without giggling, I dare you.) lead me to Twitter, which lead me to a series of tweets from Mark Ruffalo about fracking. Not the kind you BSG fans are probably thinking of, but something that is a little more worrisome than Cylons taking over the human race. For now, at least.
Turns out, there are massive amounts of natural gas trapped in shale formations buried deep underground; at least 9,000 pounds per square inch. I may not be good with numbers and math, but even I know that’s a lot. According to this article by Seamus McGraw, access to this wealth of natural gas has been made possible by two key technologies:
- Horizontal Drilling – allows vertical wells to, well, turn sideways through over a mile of earth, which means gas companies can get their hands on even more shale gas without having to drill so many vertical wells (that’s my understanding, anyway).
- Fracking. Not to be confused with “frakking.”
Fracking, as it turns out, is a slang term for “hydraulic fracturing,” which is a process used to mine natural gas wells in the United States. Basically, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped at an incredibly high pressure into horizontally drilled natural gas wells that are as far as 10,000 feet below the surface. The pressurized mixture then causes the rock layer to crack. The cracks (fissures) are then held open by the sand particles, which allows the natural gas to flow up the well where it is then pumped into storage tanks and piped to market. There’s a handy-dandy little illustration over at ProPublica for you visual learners. It makes more sense when there’s a visual, trust me.
This process is mostly used in the best and brightest shale fields:
- Marcellus Shale field – covers parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York
- Antrim Shale field – Michigan
- Barnett Shale field – Forth Worth, Texas
The advances in horizontal drilling and fracking have, “led to an eightfold increase in shale gas production over the last decade,” which puts shale gas on the fast track to accounting for nearly half of the US’ natural gas by 2035 (McGraw). If you find that hard to believe, here are some numbers I snagged off Popular Mechanics for your consideration:
- Unconventional natural gas extraction methods, which include fracking, are expected to increase to 64% of the extraction methods used by 2020 (ICF Consulting, 2010).
- The natural gas industry supplies more than $385 billion to the US economy (American Petroleum Institute, 2010).
- If hydraulic fracturing were eliminated, natural gas production would fall 57% by 2018 (American Petroleum Institute, 2010).
- Natural gas reserves in the US jumped 35% between 2006 and 2008 because of fracking (Potential Gas Committee, 2009).
- 60-80% of new US natural gas wells will need fracking to stay productive (The National Petroleum Council, 2010).
Fracking advocates are taking those stats to mean that America might get its energy independence wish in the near future, and find a new, cleaner energy source to boot. So, naturally, this is starting to figure heavily into the future of US energy production; so much so that ExxonMobile paid a paltry $41 billion to buy the shale-gas company XTO almost 2 years ago. That pretty little price tag makes that the largest single acquisition by ExonnMobile in a decade.
Sounds pretty good, right? A fairly clean source of energy, American energy independence, jobs…everyone’s happy!
Well, everyone except the unlucky folks living near those best and brightest shale fields I listed above. Turns out, fracking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It actually causes some pretty frakking big problems in three key areas:
Health – In 2005, Colorado resident Susan Wallace-Babb started experiencing nerve pain in her legs, nausea, a skin rash, and overall poor health after being exposed to a spillover from a pair of fuel storage tanks that sat next to a natural gas well near her residence. And she’s not the only one. According to this NPR article, people living thousands of miles apart are experiencing similar symptoms- and the only thing that connects them all is the fact that they live near shale-gas wells.
The article continues to explain that there are not enough resources, money, or people to conduct the kind of study necessary to find a link and, even worse, the drilling companies are either protected by a series of loopholes or exempt from laws like Safe Drinking Water of 2005, meaning that even if they were asked, they wouldn’t have to release a list of the chemical agents they use in drilling. This means that everyone from residents to workers are being exposed to potentially harmful chemicals, and no one would know because the companies aren’t legally required to disclose that information.
Now, a few companies have played nice and released lists, but they don’t include the exact amount. For example, formamide is listed among the fracking fluid ingredients. According to the CDC, romamide targets the skin, eyes, respiratory system, central nervous system, and reproductive system. Isopropanol’s in there too, which is a main ingredient in glass cleaners like Windex.
Climate – Shale-gas may be “greener” than coal or oil, but, guess what? There’s a possibility that methane can leak during the fracking process. In case you didn’t know (because I sure as heck didn’t know), methane is a greenhouse that’s 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. If fracking is releasing methane, that makes coal greener than shale-gas. Professor Robert Howarth at Cornell University conducted a study and found that, ”Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years” (Fracking Pros and Cons). So, in by trying to create a greener, cleaner form of energy, fracking for shale-gas actually does more damage than already existing, not-so-clean forms of energy.
There’s also the issue of the earthquakes.
According to this Popular Mechanics article, fracking has the potential to set of minor earthquakes because they’re injecting that water, sand and chemical mixture into the shale and that changes seismic dynamics underground. Read on:
A study in the journal Earthquake Science
pinpointed the location of more than 150 microearthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing, and the Dallas–Fort Worth region of Texas—a fracking hub—experienced 11 mini quakes in less than a month between November and December 2008. Granted, such mini man-made earthquakes are harmless, but some critics are concerned that there may be a small risk of more hazardous quakes—such as a 5.5-magnitude quake outside of Denver, Colo., in 1967
, that resulted after chemical waste was injected deep into the ground for several years as a disposal method. (An SMU study suggests the quakes may have been triggered by the underground wastewater fluid disposal that accompanied the hydraulic fracturing.)
Water – Surprisingly, it’s not the amount of water used (up to 7 million gallons to frack a single well) that’s the problem, unless you live in drought-stricken Texas, in which case, I’d look more into that. I don’t have numbers for Texas, but based on what I found, in the Marcellus Field, fracking actually uses less water than livestock and other industry. And 70% of that is recovered and treated afterwards. So it’s not all a waste and the problem isn’t with the actual process. It’s with the fluids used in the process, namely the chemicals.
In the last two years, there have been two surface spills in Dmock, PA that spilled 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid and contaminated the groundwater supply. The EPA is also watching Pavillion, WY, where high levels of fracking fluid chemicals have been found in the groundwater. While it would normally be impossible fracking fluid to escape a mile up a fissure into the groundwater supply (Popular Mechanics explains it here), Pavillion has an aquifer that sits closer to the gas stores than other aquifers do. If it turns out that Pavillion’s groundwater has been contaminated by the fracking fluid, then that would be proof that shallow shale-gas wells can’t be fracked because the fluid would leak into the aquifers and pollute (poison) the groundwater.
Also, fun fact, Pennsylvania officials fined Chesapeake Energy $1 million for contaminating the water supplies of 16 families. Turns out, Chesapeake Energy didn’t properly cement their boreholes and gas, which has formed naturally between the shale and the surface, migrated up the outside of the well and into the aquifers. It may seem like a little mistake, and oversight even, but that little mistake cost those 16 families their water supply.
Now, I’m all for finding alternate fuel and energy sources, but I’m not entirely sure fracking is the way to go here. Maybe if the Rules and Regs did a better job of holding these guys accountable for their actions/practices/fracking fluid ingredients, it could be something to consider.
But until that happens, frakk fracking.