Hydrofracturing: An Energy Revolution

by Bill Chameides | November 10th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

Crossposted with National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge Blog.

But is it a good revolution or a bad revolution?

According to Steve Forbes, editor in chief of Forbes magazine and sometime presidential candidate, the “energy crisis [is] over!” (In case you’re wondering, that exclamation point is Mr. Forbes’s.)

What ended the crisis? According to Mr. Forbes, there’s an energy “revolution” on that’s due to the application of a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing or, in the parlance of those in the know, just plain “fracking.” Methinks that Mr. Forbes’s pronouncement of the demise of the energy crisis is premature.

All Hail the Shale

The seeds of Mr. Forbes’s revolution can be found in pockets of natural gas trapped inside shale, sedimentary rock formations often located deep beneath the surface of the Earth. Geologists tell us there are huge amounts of this “shale gas” hanging out in shale formations in the United States (and elsewhere), but because the gas is unable to migrate through the rock, these deposits had up until recently been classified as unrecoverable [pdf] and thus of no use economically.

But All That Has Changed with Fracking

Getting to the shale gas is a relatively simple process. It involves both the use of horizontal drilling and fracking to maximize gas extraction. Once a vertical well reaches the target formation, one drills horizontally through it, then fractures the rock by injecting water, sand and a cocktail of likely toxic chemicals into the rock under high pressure to fracture it and liberate the trapped gas. The gas is then pumped out and voilà! — you have a whole new source of natural gas.

Make no mistake — this is a game changer. With natural gas now available from shale and other tight formations, the amount of potentially recoverable natural gas in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. All of a sudden there is enough of the stuff to run our power plants and power our automobiles for decades, perhaps a century into the future.

But There Is a Problem

In the 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz, the bad witch was done in by a bucket of water. Shale gas may face a similar fate.

Evidence is mounting that fracking does bad things to people’s drinking water. (Examples here, here, and here.) It appears that somehow all that fracturing and pumping are causing gas and chemicals to migrate upward into well water. Increasingly, people with wells in the vicinity of fracking operations are complaining of drinking water contaminated by natural gas or worse. In at least one location, alternate water supplies have had to be found for and delivered to folks whose water has become laced with natural gas to the point of posing a safety hazard — like the pipes going kaboom.

What’s to Be Done?

Some advise not to worry about that water contamination thing.

Industry experts claim that contamination is just not possible. The fracking occurs so far below the water table, they say, there is no way for any contamination to occur. (If that’s the case, one has to wonder why Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 and why companies have been slow or unwilling to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process.) While not exactly an energy expert, Steve Forbes has entered the fray, assuring us that “the technology is there to get at these reserves in an extremely safe way” and declaring that “the Earth is awash in energy.”

I am impressed with his confidence. But I wonder what it is based on. Has he bothered to visit and drink the water of some of the people whose wells have been contaminated? And how does he rationalize the presence of natural gas in their well water? Is it a coincidence that the contamination showed up once the fracking began, or have these people been drinking contaminated, flammable water all this time and just never realized it?

Others argue that getting at that shale gas is a duty — contaminated water be damned. One Pennsylvania man receiving royalties for fracking on his land reasons that “God made everything … he put [minerals] there for a purpose. It’s in our best interest to use the resources.” I guess there’s something appealing about that … but then again I wonder about that whole apple thing and the instructions not to take a bite.

The Stakes Are Huge

We have a lot riding on this fracking thing. Getting at the shale gas would be good, opening up a huge new domestic source of albeit a fossil fuel but a relatively clean one. But you can’t live without drinking water. Maybe, just maybe it would make sense to take a step back, spend some time trying to figure out what’s going on with these folks’ drinking water and then maybe even figure out how to frack without the contamination, should fracking prove to be the contamination source. But perhaps that’s just too sensible.

filed under: chemicals, energy, faculty, fracking, health, methane, natural gas, pollution, water
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  1. Mark Stewart
    Nov 16, 2010

    The industry reps are probably correct that hydrofracking doesn’t create pathways for the natural gas to migrate up through the rock for 1000’s of feet. That would make hydrofracking remarkable effective, but note that shale gas wells have to be located every 1/4 to 1/2 mile because the effects of fracking don’t extend very far. The very real problems with contamination of both ground water and surface water are related to poor gas well construction and careless handling of drilling and fracking fluids at the surface. Poor cement jobs on shale gas wells allow natural gas to leak from the well into shallow ground water and appear in people’s homes. Leaking brine and drilling fluid pits contaminate both ground water and surface water. Energy bills passed in the early 2000’s under direction of VP Cheney essentially removed much of the environmental oversight of the oil and gas industry. The contamination of water supplies and possible even the BP Gulf disaster are traceable to the deregulation of the O and G industry.

    • Bill Chameides
      Dec 2, 2010

      Mark, You may be right as to the source of the contamination (assuming fracking is causing contamination). Let’s what studies reveal.

  2. Sam Pardo
    Nov 11, 2010

    Hydro-fracking seems like another example — think tar sands, deep sea mining, deep water oil drilling — of prevailing scarcity and rising costs pushing non-renewable resource production into riskier and riskier operations just to stay viable. However, when you talk about potentially damaging potable water sources the risks become magnified that much more because, unlike oceanic catastrophes, the adverse effects can have immediate and acute effeects on human health. Fishermen on the gulf coast and the local communities that support them have suffered tremendous economic losses in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon calamity, but no one can go more than a two or three days without water to drink. Whatever your opinion on the degree of risk that hydro-fracking poses, there’s no denying that the magnitude of risk and the direct link to human health (water!) warrant a lengthy and thorough investigation of the facts.

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