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Four Truths and a Fiction about Fracking

Is fracking the best hope for US energy independence, or is it going to cause earthquakes and contaminate our groundwater? With oil industry lobbyists pitted against environmentalists, the concerned citizen is left to slog through a spin zone of arguments that swirl with the centrifugal force of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cup ride at Disneyworld. I’ll try to curb your motion sickness with this short primer:

  • TRUE: Fracking can cause groundwater contamination, but it usually doesn’t. With over a million wells drilled so far, only a few of these have spawned controversy. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, fracking contaminated the water wells of 19 families in 2009. Elevated levels of methane made the water nonpotable (not suitable for drinking), and one well actually blew up. (Watch the award-winning documentary Gasland for more info.) The company in question, Cabot Oil, denied wrongdoing but compensated the families and cleaned up the wells. Chesapeake Energy, whose dealings are outlined in this Rolling Stone expose, suffered a well blowout in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, in 2011 that spilled 10,000 gallons of fracking fluid into nearby fields. The company was fined $250,000 for that incident and $1 million more for related incidents. It is important to note that most fracking takes place at an underground level much deeper than freshwater aquifers, and the fracking fluid is too heavy to travel several thousand feet upward to reach the aquifers. Thus, fracking fluids and groundwater are unlikely to mix. However, accidents can and will happen. Of equal concern is the fact that methane, a greenhouse gas more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, often leaks from fracking wells and may negate the advantages of using ostensibly cleaner-burning natural gas.
  • TRUE: Fracking can cause earthquakes; scientists have known this since the 1960s. What happens is that used fracking fluid is pumped deep underground in a disposal well after the main well has been established. The massive amounts of water and fluid (about 4.5 million gallons per disposal well; and the Barnett Shale in Texas alone has 50,000 disposal wells) can cause the fault to slip (this Reuters report goes into detail). Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have established a link between Dallas-area earthquakes and nearby disposal wells. These earthquakes, more than 50 of them since 2008, are getting stronger. And an 8.8 earthquake in Chile in 2010 was deemed a “remote triggering event” that caused a 5.7 quake in  Prague, Oklahoma, in 2011, at the site of a disposal well, which damaged 14 houses and caused several injuries.
  • TRUE: Fracking wastewater is radioactive. Actually, it’s the shale containing the natural gas that is radioactive, and these particles can wash off into high-pressure fracking fluid and wastewater. But the shale’s radiation occurs naturally in the form of radium-226 and radium-228 isotopes. In fact, this radioactivity is how gas-rich shale is located; the higher the radiation the more gas there is likely to be in the shale. However, the radiation that flushes out with the wastewater rarely, if ever, rise above normal background levels that are considered safe. Except in Pennsylvania, where a group of Duke scientists tested water in areas of intense fracking and found radium concentrations in river sediment that were over 200 times higher than normal background levels. While it is possible to treat wastewater to eliminate radioactivity, it is expensive to do so and not yet routine. This may be the controversy to follow in the coming years.
  • TRUE: Fracking is water intensive and requires vast amounts of chemicals. Each well requires about 7 million gallons of water, much of which will remain underground after the natural gas or oil is released; multiply this by thousands of wells and you get—lots of water. However, New York City uses 8.9 billion gallons of water each day, so it’s all about perspective. As for chemicals, here’s a short list of the hundreds of additives that can be used (different companies use different substances for different circumstances—acids, solvents, corrosion inhibiters, etc.): hydrochloric acid, glutaraldehyde, magnesium peroxide, sodium chloride, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), acetaldehyde, methanol, citric acid, isopropanol, and naphthalene. Fortunately, new regulations require companies to disclose the substances they use in fracking fluid, so the public will now have a better idea of what’s propping up the fractured shale beneath their town square.
  • FICTION: Fracking can supply the United States with enough gas and oil to become energy independent. Nice try, but no cigar. While natural gas is abundant, cheap, and burns cleaner than oil (emitting less than half the greenhouse gases), it isn’t a panacea. Most vehicles don’t run on natural gas and chances are they never will. As for oil, many of the fracked well heads are drying up much faster than previous estimates. That leaves us dependent on foreign oil until everyone drives a car fueled with electricity generated by natural gas-powered plants. And even then the abundant US supply may only last a generation—not the 100 years that optimists initially cited.

It’s easy to demonize Big Oil for the changes they’ve wrought on the landscape throughout the Bakken Formation in Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York. (And many other smaller deposits in between.) Everyone wants a clean energy solution that will curb climate change while maintaining our way of life, but few of us are willing to significantly curb our use of fossil-fuel derived energy until that magic day arrives. You can definitely make the argument that oil and drilling companies are simply providing a product that is in high demand, and that has always been the American way.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: November 12, 2013, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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