Becoming Informed About Fracking

Last Thursday I ventured into Gross Hall for the first time and stepped into The Energy Hub. A few e-mail announcements had persuaded me to come to the monthly Energy Mix, an informal gathering of Duke affiliates and professionals interested in various fields of energy. Before the Energy Mix there was also an info session for the Clean Energy Track of the Duke Start-Up Challenge, a year-long competition in which student teams design business plans and receive feedback from an extensive alumni network. I wasn’t planning on participating in the competition, but was eager to learn more about past energy-related projects.

I headed to the Energy Mix after the info session and visited the project tables. One team proposed a crowdfunding program to help schools retrofit their facilities with energy-saving technologies. Another project installed monitoring devices in major appliances of fast-food restaurants to track where and when considerable energy losses were occurring.

But the project that caught my attention the most, and also happened to be the 2013 winning energy team, was Refrackt. Judy Winglee, who I recognized from my prospective student visit at Duke, and Victor Smith talked to mingling attendees about their new company, which is based on a technology for treating wastewater generated from hydraulic facturing (hydrofracking). The technology consists of a membrane distillation system that can treat wastewater directly at the site of fracking, reducing overall energy usage, costs, and water resources. I was impressed by the progress that these students had made to get their research out of the lab and applied to such a momentous problem. The problem their project aimed to solve also transported me back to the place I called home while in college, a place rife with fracking debates and protests.

Fracking involves injecting fracking fluid into underground shale rock at high pressures to induce cracks in the rock, allowing trapped natural gas to escape. The fracking fluid is about 90% water, a little over 9% sand (to maintain openings in the formed cracks), and less than 1% chemicals, some toxic. The advantages of obtaining large sources of natural gas are weighed down by several environmental risks, the most well-known of which are the potential for water contamination by fracking chemicals and methane, and methane leaks to the atmosphere. (You can find out more about the EPA’s research on water and fracking here.) Though fracking is practiced in other states (see map for shale locations and drilling sites in the U.S.), the development of new drilling sites in the Northeast and other potential spots has spurred the current protests I’ve witnessed from an outsider’s perspective.

Four years of living in Ithaca, NY, atop the Marcellus Shale, was enough to make me regard fracking as a highly sensitive subject, given the long-term tensions. Its prevalence was even able to crack into our campus bubble, it surrounded us. Front-yard posters and bumper stickers displayed a permanent and seemingly communal anti-fracking attitude. On the way back from every Wegman’s food shopping trip, my housemates and I passed sobering anti-fracking graffiti in downtown Ithaca. I knew students who sacrificed their clean criminal records to be arrested during peaceful anti-fracking sit-ins. The environmental club I was in entered a budget pool to bring the Yes Men to campus, a duo who were responsible for prank stickers around NY that raised awareness of fracking’s potential harm to drinking water. One of my friends worked on a baseline groundwater quality project in the Soil and Water Lab, to create a database of pre-fracking water quality in central New York. It goes on.

I always thought that I should educate myself more on the topic and its relation to the community. I didn’t attend a fracking debate or a free documentary screening of Gasland, both things I’d do if I had the chance again. I didn’t conduct my own in-depth research on the issues to develop an informed opinion, so I remained a transient outsider to the worried community. I’ve now moved away, but the chance remains to learn more about my current community- to my surprise (and admittedly, some nostalgia), a familiar tenant lives on the intersection of my new street in Durham: a “Frack Free NC” poster.

A familiar neighbor.

Back at the Refrackt table, I confessed to Judy and Victor, “I didn’t know fracking was big in North Carolina.”

“It isn’t,” Victor responded, meaning the potential natural gas yield isn’t as large as in places such as the Marcellus Shale. Not wanting to continue harboring the ‘uninformed outsider’ feeling I knew too well, I decided I needed to catch up on NC fracking news. A very brief synopsis of what I found is below.

Potential drilling sites (map) in NC are in Chatham and Lee Counties. A moratorium on fracking in NC stands until March 2015, and the Senate bill attempting to override this moratorium was nixed over the summer. Though permits will be available in 2015, drilling cannot take place until it is legalized by the NC legislature, which will require extensive testing related to environmental health and safety. In 2012, the NC Mining and Energy Commission organized to take responsibility for writing regulations to govern this testing and fracking in NC. A recent rejection of EPA grants for baseline water quality testing has left this Commission as well as local citizens surprised, however. The NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources chose to return the grant to wait until fracking locations and contaminants to be tested are known. They also cited that 70 future layoffs in the department would provide enough funds for this testing in the future. Additional unsettling news to the public comes from a recently announced recommendation of forced pooling, which could also dodge the consent of this Commission. Forced pooling would require landowners to sell their property for drilling if a certain percentage of adjacent land has voluntarily been sold. Legislators will choose if or how to accept this recommendation in the coming months.

You may know all of the information and perspectives when it comes to fracking, but if not I encourage you to learn more about it and its relation to your community too. I still have a lot more to learn. I think the seriousness and prevalence of the matter deserves that citizens be informed. The Nicholas School’s own GreenGrok blog is a good place to start. Right here at Duke, research studies involve testing well water for methane and fracking chemicals (they’ve found methane in drinking water in Pennsylvania but not Arkansas, due to differences in geological features surrounding the drilling sites). Not to mention there’s also Refrackt, which could allay concerns over the transport and disposal of fracking wastewater.

I have the Energy Mix to thank for prompting my personal escapade into fracking updates. If you are interested in energy, I’d encourage you to check out the next Energy Mix and other Energy Initiative Events. You just might learn something new. Oh yeah, and there’s free food.