Drilling down to the fracts – or not
Walk down any major street in West Philadelphia, and within a couple of blocks you’ll see a poster or flyer denouncing fracking (a technique increasingly used by natural gas drillers to release trapped gas by fracturing subterranean rock). Philadelphia residents have been getting increasingly worked up about this issue, with several protest marches occurring in 2012 alone. A search of Change.org at the time of this writing shows 24 petitions related to fracking — only two of which are in favor of the practice (combined, these two petitions have a total of one supporter). “Fractivists” claim that existing natural gas-drilling operations have already caused well contamination with “weapons-grade uranium, arsenic, and other carcinogens,” release of explosive levels of methane, and serious illness in affected townships — and they worry that drilling in the Delaware river watershed will contaminate drinking water for both Philadelphia and New York City.
The frack fires back
Natural gas proponents such as Jon Entine of George Mason University have answered with accusations that anti-fracking groups are using an “anti-science, fear-based campaign” to “create the illusion that horizontal fracturing pollutes drinking water — even though … there is not one documented case of such pollution.” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett — an outspoken advocate of fracking — calls the protests “unreasoning opposition” that stands in the way of an energy revolution and an economic boom (Pennsylvania is one of several states that sits atop the Marcellus Shale, and has been seeing a huge increase in horizontal gas drilling in that formation); in a speech before industry representatives this September, the governor spoke of his desire for an “economy unshackled by needless regulation.” Corbett’s environmental secretary also referred to the EPA (which is attempting a large-scale study of the environmental impacts of fracking) as being “rogue and out-of-control.”
What the frack are they talking about?
Environmental concerns about fracking usually involve groundwater/aquifer contamination, either from the initial mixture pumped into the well (which contains about 1 percent “additives” meant to smooth out the process, including relatively small concentrations of acids, surfactants, and other chemicals that kill bacteria or prevent the buildup of scale and rust) or from the used fracking fluid (“flowback”), which contains various potentially nasty chemicals picked up from underground, some of which may be radioactive. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell for sure whether flowback water has been correctly disposed of, and even harder to definitively prove that any contaminants detected in groundwater come from fracking operations — as a 2011 EPA study demonstrates. The primary method for dealing with the wastewater is to inject it back into the ground (theoretically, somewhere deep below the layer that supplies drinking water); however, the latter process has been shown to cause earthquakes in some locations. It is hard to find peer-reviewed studies that document environmental or drinking-water damage from fracking; on the other hand even the Ground Water Protection Council — which testified to the safety of the fracking process — recommends continued monitoring and data collection. The collection of scientific impact data tends to lag behind industrial innovation, after all. Although the principle behind fracking is not new, recent innovations have made it more effective, more far-reaching, more economical, and far more popular.
So… what are you saying?
Both sides of the fracking debate have points worth considering, but they’re hidden by so much rhetoric and vituperation that it’s almost impossible to find them. It does seem likely that fracking — especially without adequate regulation and monitoring — could pose dangers to environmental and human health. On the other hand, so does every other form of energy production. The real questions are: how major are the potential impacts, can we mitigate them, and do the benefits — in the form of economic advantages (which could be significant — the Marcellus Shale alone is estimated to contain the largest natural gas reserve in the nation, up to 10 trillion cubic meters) and environmental advantages (the World Resources Institute estimates that natural gas combustion produces about half the amount of CO2 as burning coal) — outweigh the potential costs? Aside from groundwater contamination and risks associated with gas compression and transport, escaped methane could be a powerful contributor to climate change, as it is several times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2; not only that, but shale gas development could defer the adoption of renewable energy sources, according to WRI.
So far, we can’t even agree on how to start addressing all these issues. All we’re getting is a lot of hot air.