It's the technique that's threatening to displace climate change as the to environmental debate of our time – hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking”. In case you're a little fuzzy on what exactly that means, hydrofracking is a technique used to access deposits of natural gas trapped within layers of impermeable shale rock deep buried under ground by injecting water, sand and often a slurry of chemicals under high pressure into the rock to cause a series of fractures that will allow the trapped natural gas to flow to the wellhead on the surface for collection – the pressurized water does the fracturing, the sand keeps the newly-formed cracks open and the chemicals help ease the flow of gas. Shale gas is seen as nothing short of a game-changer in the global energy picture. The United States has enough shale gas to meet domestic demand for the next century, perhaps longer; China is viewing their shale deposits as not only a way to continue to supply their insatiable industrial demand for power, but also as a way to transition away from burning far dirtier coal; Poland sees their reserves as a way to break their dependence on Russia for energy supplies and even dreams of becoming an energy exporting country in their own right; other nations view their shale deposits with similar optimism.
Not so fast, say a growing legion of fracking critics, who see the technique as simply too environmentally damaging to be our energy savior. Fracking a well uses a lot of water - perhaps a million gallons - some of which will flow back to the surface contaminated and in need of proper treatment so that it doesn't pollute the local environment. Worse still, critics say, is the cocktail of chemicals that are used in fracking. What chemicals are used and in what proportion are open questions: Companies involved in fracking often claim the exact mix of chemicals is propriatary information; to make the matter even more obsidian is a law passed in 2005 that exempts fracking companies from having to disclose their formulas or from treating fracking mixes as hazardous material in the first place and shifts the burden of regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency to various state agencies. And by pure coincidence one of the major suppliers of fracking fluids happens to be former Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm, Halliburton. Fracking opponents claim that the fracking process allows this stew of chemicals, along with the newly-liberated methane gas, to migrate thousands of feet up to the surface, fouling groundwater and wells near fracking sites and endangering the health of people in the region of the drilling site in the process. As evidence they site a collection of ancedotal incidents throughout the fracking heartland that runs from Pennsylvania to Texas.
Opponents have grabbed onto a new report conducted by Duke University that shows contamination of wells in a region of northeastern Pennsylvania that is among the most active fracking locations on the planet as proof of their claims. It is, they say, nothing short of vindication of their opposition to fracking. But one has to view these claims of victory skeptically: A careful look at the Duke report shows that it's not all the fracking opponents claim it to be. While the Duke report does indicate that there has been contamination of some wells, the contamination is from methane gas, not fracking fluids. A methane-contaminated well can make for some mind-blowing visuals - like in extreme cases, producing tap water that can be lit on fire - but methane isn't a carcinogen as fracking fluids are alleged to be, in fact if you've eaten recently, you probably have some methane bubbling inside your digestive track right now – methane is the main component of flatulence. Methane-tainted wells are not unheard of, especially in regions that are home to known natural gas deposits; as far as the wells studied by the Duke researchers, a plausible explanation is that methane leaked into the groundwater either through retired wells that were not capped correctly or from improperly cased active wells (the well casing is the tube that runs down to the natural gas reservoir, if it is cracked, gas can seep out). This is indication of sloppy work on the part of the drillers and a lack of oversight from government regulators rather than a evidence of a fundamentally-flawed gas production process as critics suggest.
Fracking critics are also quick to cite a report published last month by a research team from Cornell University led by Prof. Robert Howarth, which in addition to branding the fracking process dangerous, also said that shale gas emits more greenhouse gas than coal – a reversal of the long-held position that natural gas is a far cleaner fuel than coal from an emissions standpoint. Howarth's report has been the subject vigorous criticism and published debunkings of its “highly questionable” (to cite Time magazine) conclusions, Howarth – a fracking skeptic in his own right – even admits the peer-reviewed report is built on “lousy” data. But even that admission has not kept the Howarth report out of the fracking critic canon.
And that is a problem. It's fine to have a debate about energy policy and to take a close look at where our energy comes from. But any debate should be built on facts, not hyperbole and dubious science designed to scare the pants off people. The environmental lobby is doing itself no favors by mispromoting evidence like the Duke report, which in fact shows that fracking chemicals are not leeching into the groundwater as feared, or by touting the flawed and easily attacked work of a anti-fracker like Prof. Howarth. It simply makes it too easy for skeptics to dismiss the protest from environmentalists as more “green paranoia” and feeds into a theme out there that environmentalists have to find something wrong with shale gas since a new cheap and abundant source of fossil fuel could be the death knell for renewable energy, at least for the next few generations.
On the other side, the fracking industry is doing itself no favors either by zealously guarding the recipe for fracking fluids. Nor are they helping their cause by not performing the due dilligence in making sure their wells are properly cased in the first place, that waste water is properly collected and treated and that unused wells are correctly sealed – steps which would likely all but eliminate instances of contamination from fracking sites. The Guardian recently ran an informative piece about a fracking test project in northern England drilled by Cuadrilla Resources. To allay fears over fracking, Cuadrilla has taken aggressive steps, from publicizing their fracking mix (which contains only three chemicals besides water and sand), to collecting and treating waste water, to even encasing the drilling rig within a building to minimize its mechanical noise. Cuadrilla estimates these steps have added 20% to their project costs, but they feel it has been worth it since opposition to fracking from the local community has been largely non-existent.
The fact is that in this energy-hungry world, shale gas reserves are simply too big to ignore. Wells will be fracked, shale gas will be produced in places around the globe. American firms already have a decade-long lead in fracking technology, a lead they can maintain if public pressure doesn't curtail their production (Chinese and Australian firms have begun investing in American shale projects to gain fracking experience of their own); environmental groups can make sure that shale gas is produced with an eye towards mitigating environmental damage. Both sides can succeed, if they intelligently pursue their respective goals.
Natural Gas, United States