Fracking: Rewards and risks

Source: Scientific American

The controversy regarding the benefits versus the downsides of “fracking” (the use of hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling to release large quantities of natural gas and some oil from vast shale formations) will not be resolved any time soon.  What is  clear is that the U.S. is now known to have a huge, hitherto untapped but now recoverable source of relatively inexpensive natural gas. Availability of this resource will allow us to back out significant amounts of foreign crude oil as gas is increasingly used for power generation and in the transportation sector. Moreover, the installation of thousands of new wells and the associated infrastructure is creating many thousands of new jobs, mostly in depressed areas of the country.

But it is also clear that in many locations where fracking is used, inhabitants find methane in their drinking water and chemicals from the fracking process in groundwater, some of which may have leaked from storage ponds used for the recovered water from drilling. Some of the chemicals are not associated with those used in the fracking process, but are leached from the formation itself, as the  process disturbs mineral-loaded land subject to the high pressures used in fracturing the shale.

A good article on drinking water problems related to hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits can be found in Scientific American’s November 2011 issue.

Source : Environmental Protection Agency

Companies involved in fracking for natural gas claim that the process is inherently safe in terms of drinking water contamination, as long as proper procedures are used. Faulty cementing and casing failures are considered to be the main “weak link” in the fracking process. This is because the flowback water from fracking could then leak into water deposits at a higher point in the well causing ground water contamination. It is believed that cementing of wells can never be completely foolproof- that failures will always occur in some wells.

The EPA has launched a major study to analyze how shale fracking is or may be tied to drinking water contamination. This will include test well failures and existing subsurface pathway scenarios. An interim report will be published next year.

An excellent, recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses how the potential hazards of fracking are the subject of studies being undertaken to establish appropriate standards. These will be carried out urgently against the background of this country’s need for greater energy independence, with greatly increased use of natural gas,  balanced against the problems caused by the use of, at times, faulty fracking procedures. Considering the facts, it seems unlikely that the problem of drinking water contamination can be completely solved, given the huge number of wells being drilled. But it would also seem that enforcement of proper procedures should minimize the problem.  At this point, each state must decide how to make that cost/benefit balance, based on rule making and the results of additional studies.

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4 Responses to Fracking: Rewards and risks

  1. Joe Porcelli says:

    These two references have reasonably described the issues and risks associated with the use of fracking. Several points are very troubling. One is that it will take a long time to settle the matters, apparently on a state-by-state basis. This adds uncertainty, in itself a major risk, to the planning of any of the parties – drillers, customers and the public. Nonetheless, plans for new olefin plants are being described as certain – if so this would seem foolish given the uncertaintly.

    The other troubling fact is the statement that the drillers make that if it is done right there will be no problem, but the EPA states that a total solution is unlikely.

    It would seem logical to require written contingency plans from each driller, describing what can go wrong and what they will do to minimize the danger. Furthermore, there ought to be funds contributed into escrow from each driller (and possibly each user of natural gas) to cover the worst eventualities. These two actions would be very appripriate for oil drillers in the Gulf of Mexico and the Alaska off-shore exploration now going into high-gear. .

    • Peter Spitz says:

      Joe: Your comments are well taken. It seems to me that the most likely outcome would involve (a) banning fracking in areas like the NYS watershed, (b) setting down strict rules regarding procedures for drilling, waste water storage, testing, etc (c) providing compensation for inhabitants who suffer from fracking in their vicinity (insurance paid into by the various drilling firms??). It seems to me that there is no way that fracking will be broadly stopped – the US needs the natural gas and the associated job creation, which is huge. We are tolerating the destruction of the landscape in the Appalachians due to stripping mountainsides and polluting streams there, so this is not a new issue – just affecting a lot more people with greater political clout.

  2. Dr. Leo Stern says:

    Peter–

    No time at this moment for my fuller comment on your last two very interesting blog postings. But please be sure to read the first page article in the Times today on fracking! Environmental degradation affects far more than drinking water purity–

  3. Peter Spitz says:

    Bud:

    I look forward to a more detailed comment on fracking. Also, please see my reply to Joe Porcelli’s comment.

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