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Fracking for natural gas, the benefits and the risks

A gas drilling rig in Wyoming.
Wyoming Upper Green River Valley
A gas drilling rig in Wyoming.

This is a speech I recently gave to a Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism meeting in Detroit on the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing.


According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report, we are seeing an unprecedented drop in the price of natural gas in comparison to oil prices.

Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel. In 2002, oil was about $20 a barrel.

Natural gas is currently at 2002 prices. In fact, the price of natural gas is half of what it was one year ago.

Why? Because of abundant supplies of natural gas, what the U.S. Energy Information Administration calls “robust inshore production.”

There is a glut of gas.

This increased supply is mostly due to hydraulic fracturing. More importantly, a newer way to use the drilling method, horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal ‘fracking’ has made it easier and cheaper to extract natural gas from shale deposits in the U.S. and other sites around the globe.

Horizontal fracking has meant a boom in gas drilling and production. It’s meant more jobs in certain areas of the country. It’s meant greater dependence on domestic energy, and less dependence on foreign energy.

Because burning natural gas emits about half of the CO2 emissions of coal or oil, it means less of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

It’s meant families can heat their homes more cheaply.

That all sounds good, right?

Well, it’s not ALL good.RISKS

The extraordinary expansion of natural gas extraction through the use of horizontal hydraulic fracturing is causing real concerns about risks to air quality and water quality.

First, let’s deal with air quality.

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first-ever national air pollution regulations for fracking.

As ProPublica reported, fracking, during the drilling process can release cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and methane during a burst of gas released during the first few days after a well is first tapped, but before production begins.

The EPA, in a compromise with the drilling industry, is requiring the companies to capture those gases rather than allow them to simply vent the gases into the atmosphere. It’s not going to happen as quickly as the EPA first proposed, but it is in the works.

The greater concern is water contamination.

But, the EPA is actually barred from regulating the impact of fracking on ground water. Congress, in 2005, exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. The regulatory agency charged with protecting the environment has been barred from protecting water from contamination from hydraulic fracturing.

So, what kind of risk to water sources does fracking present?

To understand that, you have to have a basic understanding of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing has been around since the 1940s. Oil and gas companies basically drilled down, past the water table, through the bedrock to this layer of shale where oil and gas are trapped.

A driller pumped a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand under high pressure, fracturing the shale. The sand grains would enter the fractures, propping them open allowing the oil and/or gas to escape. The chemicals were flushed out with more water and then extraction began.

With horizontal hydraulic fracturing, it goes a step further.

Instead of just drilling down, once the drill head hits the shale, the drillers then start drilling horizontally anywhere from a quarter of a mile along the shale to a mile or more. This makes a single well site much more productive. Fracturing all along this drilling area means the released gas or oil can be extracted from this single well.

This requires massive amounts of water.

Depending where you are, that amount of water can draw down aquifers. We’re talking anywhere from a couple of million gallons of water to as much as eight million gallons of water per well.

If you’re talking about hundreds or even thousands of wells in a region, that adds up quickly. And because it’s mixed with some pretty nasty chemicals, that water is no longer usable.

It’s usually disposed of in deep injection wells… deep into the ground… out of sight, out of mind. The water is completely lost from the water cycle.

The drilling industry notes that only about one percent of the nation’s use of water is used for fracking. But all the other uses of water in agriculture or in our homes don’t permanently remove water from the water cycle. It’s used again, eventually. So, that one percent of all water used can really affect some regions, particularly arid regions. And there’s nothing the federal government can do to prevent it.

The second major concern is the possibility of some of those chemicals leaching into underground water supplies.

The oil and gas industry assures us that those chemicals are so far below the water table they cannot possibly migrate to pollute water supplies underground.

Yet, there are documented cases where the evidence overwhelmingly points to fracking as the cause of water well contamination.

Yet, again, the federal government cannot do anything about it because they are barred from regulating the impact of fracking on ground water - even if it’s shown proof-positive that fracking is to blame.

One of the disturbing aspects of this is it’s difficult, if not impossible, to check water supplies for the chemicals.

That’s because the manufacturers of these chemical compounds used to fracture the shale say the ingredients are trade secrets. They say they would be at a competitive disadvantage if they were forced to reveal their secret formulas.

In Michigan last year, the state Supervisor of Wells did issue New Permitting Instructions.

They include:

  • Changes to water usage oversight: operators will be required to document where they plan to get the fresh water used in the process using the DEQ’s water withdrawal tool, to ensure that neither surface water nor any neighboring water wells are impacted. They also will be required to report the total volume of fracturing water recovered during operation.
  • Reporting: DEQ will require operators to disclose all Material Safety Data Sheets and will post that information on the department’s Web site for public review. The sheets list characteristics of the chemical additives and their potential health and environmental effects.
  • Fracturing records: Operators are required to submit service company fracturing records and associated charts showing fracturing volumes, rates, and pressures.

But most states do not require the specific ingredients of the fracturing fluids, and disclosure requirements vary from state to state.
If you suspect ground water sources are being contaminated, it would be difficult to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

Which chemicals would you test for?

There are more than 500 different chemicals in use in these various fracking formulas.

Some of them are as simple as diesel fuel. Others are more hazardous.

While it might be true that chemicals used thousands of feet below the water table, below bedrock, might not be able to migrate up to ground water, all of that fracking fluid does eventually come back up to the surface through the well.

Different states have different standards for the vertical well. Some states require steel pipes and concrete casings to and beyond the bedrock level.

Some of these state standards, such as Michigan, are reasonably safe. Some other state standards are less stringent.

The weak link is the well casing closer to the surface. If that casing leaks, the fracturing fluid, or the natural gas, or both could get into the water table, contaminating wells or surface water. So, there is the opportunity for these often toxic chemical compounds to leak out on the way down or on the way back up the drilled well.

Again, documented cases have found chemicals frequently used in fracking in water supplies near drilling sites.

Very little independent academic research has been done to determine the risk to water supplies.

The drilling industry says recovering oil and gas is important to the nation’s economy and its security. And, there are strong arguments to support that statement.

But, the question with which we’re left is this: is the energy resource more valuable to society in the long run than the water resource that might be at risk.

A reporter who has extensively investigated horizontal hydraulic fracturing across the United States, Abrahm Lustgarten of Pro Publica, has said you have to consider the value of both resources.

“Gas is a wonderful resource and it’s very important to the United States. Water is as well," said Lustgarten. "And to discount the importance of water in the short term, to assume without an scientific knowledge that water will be protected or it’s not at risk, makes the country and makes the state of Michigan and other states vulnerable to having made a great mistake and possibly regretting not implementing some small and simple steps that could have protected that resource in the first place.”

That will not be determined by the federal government. At this point, it will only be determined by the individual state governments.

And cash-strapped states that are leasing drilling rights on public lands are not always as vigilant as they might be when it means hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for a state.

For example, an auction for drilling leases on state-owned property in Michigan was held in 2010.

It brought in $178 million. That’s almost as much as all the revenue from all the leases from 1929 to May of 2010.

So, we’re left with choices.

Can we risk our water supplies for the sake of cheaper, domestically produced energy without further study?

Is the short term energy gain –because, after all, we’re going to burn this stuff up in the immediate future- is it worth the risk to water supplies that we’ll depend on in the long term?

Each state and its people will have to decide that for themselves because, again, Congress has barred the Environmental Protection Agency from safeguarding our water from any ill effects of fracking.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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