America Gets Fracked
An investigative report published by The New York Times identifies important but previously unnoticed environmental hazards in natural gas fracking. Potentially the most serious disclosure is that waste water from natural gas drilling wells can contain levels of radioactivity that far exceed Federal drinking water standards. And that is not the only significant problem reported. In other areas, the disposal of used fracking solution by re-injecting it into the ground may be contributing to earthquakes. With turmoil sweeping the world's major oil producing regions and demand for energy continuing to rise, the US has been developing new natural gas fields at an accelerating pace. In the rush for energy independence is America getting fracked?
Natural gas is the cleanest burning form of fossil fuel. Even environmentalists say using natural gas will help slow climate change because it burns more cleanly than coal and oil. The US has always possessed vast deposits of natural gas, trapped in layers of shale rock, thought to be enough to supply the country with energy for more than 100 years. Drilling companies have only recently developed techniques to unlock these enormous reserves.
The discovery in the last decade of new drilling techniques that could open up these vast reserves of natural gas trapped in shale rock formations has produced what many experts are calling a “natural gas revolution.” That revolution “is already changing the national energy dialogue and overall energy outlook in the United States—and could change the global natural gas balance,” claimed Robert Ineson of The Wall Street Journal and Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates in a 2009 article. “In 1990, unconventional gas—from shales, coal-bed methane and so-called "tight" formations—was about 10% of total U.S. production. Today it is around 40%, and growing fast, with shale gas by far the biggest part.”
US shale gas deposits. Source EIA.
Known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, it involves injecting large amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures. The injected fluid shatters the rock, releasing the gas trapped within. This technique has been so successful that US natural gas reserves have more than doubled in the last 20 years. In an earlier IEEE report by William Sweet, “Water and Shale Gas,” horizontal drilling was identified as the truly disruptive innovation:
Horizontal drilling in combination with hydraulic fracturing was first done on a large scale during the last decade in the Barnett Shale formation in the Bend Arch–Fort Worth Basin, in Texas, where the techniques proved highly successful. Now they are being transferred to the Marcellus Shale, a gigantic geological formation under virtually all of Pennsylvania and much of upstate New York, with flanks stretching into West Virginia and Ohio. The gas formed hundreds of millions of years ago in the Devonian era, a long geologic age in which Pennsylvania’s coal and oil also came into being, though mostly by separate processes and at different times.
Once a well is sunk about 2 kilometers into the ground, advanced computer controls now make it possible to gradually turn the bit and guide it horizontally for 10 km or more to within centimeters of target spots. This sideways drilling makes it possible to access much more gas from a single hole, thereby improving the economics. The smaller surface footprint also helps with public relations—local residents don't see an unsightly forest of well derricks springing up across the countryside.
How hydrofracking works.
That 2010 IEEE report also raised questions about water usage and pollution. Though the existence of toxic wastes generated by drilling has been reported by residents of several states, the new New York Times report suggests that the problems have been underestimated. The Times obtained thousands of internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state regulators and drillers showing that the dangers to the environment and public health are greater than previously understood.
“With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of waste-water that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground,” said the 4,000-word New York Times report, by Ian Urbina. Thousands of documents obtained by the Times “reveal that the waste-water, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known.”
The Times reviewed more than 30,000 pages of documents obtained from state and federal agencies and by visiting various regional offices that oversee drilling in Pennsylvania. Some of the documents were leaked by state or federal officials. The most significant documents have been made available on line at the Times website.
According to a report on the IEEE EnergyWise blog, Pennsylvania currently has about 71,000 active gas drilling wells, almost double the number ten years ago. The Times found that 128 wells generated waste water with high levels of radiation from radium, uranium, and other radioactive materials. Those levels exceeded Federal drinking water standards by a factor of 2,700 in some cases. According to the IEEEreport:
[I]n Pennsylvania—the main locus of Marcellus Shale gas fracking—regulation of waste-water from fracking wells is singularly lax. Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania does not require waste-water to be put into storage caverns deep under impermeable rock, and alone among the drilling states, it allows drillers to discharge the water directly through sewage treatment plants.
In other areas, like the state of Arkansas, waste-water is re-injected into underground storage areas, and that may be causing other problems. A recent flurry of earthquakes has the people of central Arkansas on edge and asking questions. Centered on a minor fault east of the town of Greenbrier, the strongest quake registered 4.7 on the Richter scale—not anywhere near the 9.0 March 11 quake that struck near Japan, but disconcerting to local residents just the same.
Central Arkansas is not an earthquake prone region and the 4.7 quake was the strongest trembler to strike the area in 20 years. This prompted local officials have launched an investigation to determine whether the flurry of quakes is linked to the re-injection of fracking fluids in any way.
A flurry of recent earthquakes have shaken central Arkansas.
There are two injection wells in the vicinity of the uptick in earthquake activity as well as numerous gas wells. The state’s Oil and Gas Commission suspended operation at the two wells while state and federal authorities investigate. The number and strength of earthquakes in central Arkansas have noticeably dropped since the shutdown of two injection wells in the area, although a state researcher says it’s too early to draw any conclusions.
“We have definitely noticed a reduction in the number of earthquakes, especially the larger ones,” said Scott Ausbrooks, geohazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey. “It’s definitely worth noting.” At the time of this report, the verdict was still out.
The controversy has spread beyond North America. In the Republic of South Africa, the area known as the Great Karoo evidently lies atop a shale gas formation. Shell International and Falcon already have a license to scout for gas. In Europe, according to Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, Lane Energy of Canada is set to begin fracking for unconventional shale gas deposits in the northern geological formation known as the Baltic Depression. It is only a matter of time for the technique to spread to Russia and other gas producing countries.
The world is in dire need of more clean energy, yet from Québec to Texas and from Gdansk to Pretoria, people are starting to protest the presence of fracking wells. As unrest flairs across North Africa and the Middle East, oil prices have gone on a roller coaster ride and continue to trend higher. The time has come for some hard decisions—just how much risk are people willing to accept in order to keep their cars and high-tech lifestyles?
After the BP oil platform accident in 2009, public opinion in America went from “drill baby, drill” to “don't drill anywhere.” Now, with gas prices headed for $4 a gallon, public opinion has swung back to supporting drilling. Are a few minor earth tremors worth securing vast new supplies of relatively clean natural gas?
There is no such thing as a risk free life. Indeed, a life lived without taking any risks would hardly be worth living at all, in my opinion. The arguments used by environmentalists—the anti-nuclear and climate change alarmists in particular—have insinuated themselves into our everyday lives. “Take no risks!” they cry, when what they really mean is technology advance no further.
Progress was invented during the Industrial Revolution and has given hope for a better life to the vast majority of people on Earth. Now progress is condemned, blamed as the primary source of risk by those who would have us return to preindustrial times. For committed eco-fascists it is more important to “save the planet” than to lift humanity out of poverty or to end starvation for the nearly one billion people who go to bed hungry every night. Sorry, given the choices they offer, all I have to say is let's get fracking.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.