Fracking Natural Gas

Just to be clear, “fracking” is not a euphemistic slight on natural gas, but refers to a production method known as hydraulic fracturing. This method has been around for over a century and was first employed commercially by, of all companies, Halliburton in 1949. Natural gas and oil deposits have been exploited with increasing vigor and efficiency (in a limited sense of the term) for many decades to the point that less likely locations are becoming “economically viable” and industry is exploiting areas once passed off as unworthy of development.

Of this type are formations of shale rock. Deep underground and under high pressures, these areas have large amounts of oil and gas diffusely dispersed within them. This diffuseness has been the problem in tapping these resources with more conventional well technology. Rather than finding large pockets of these hydrocarbon fuels, the materials are bound within the rock structure. Releasing them is a matter of creating sections of lower pressure into which the liquids and gases will migrate and expand. It is like opening a bottle of soda. Once the seal is broken, the dissolved CO2 in the drink will come out of suspension and bubble up to the surface. In fracking this is accomplished by drilling into the deposit and pumping fracturing fluid (something you surely would not want to drink) at high pressure into the formation to cause it to fracture. Then proppants (such as sand) are injected into the cracks to keep them open. The hydrocarbons are then collected by the well bore and transported to the surface.

So what’s the problem? You had to assume that there is a problem or else why would I be writing about it. It seems that all of the hydrocarbons do not cooperate and enter the well bore. Instead, some portion of it (and various other chemicals used in the process) migrate into fresh water zones used to supply drinking water for us humans. Whether the contamination comes directly from the deposits, from leaks in the well bore or from accidental spills is not the point when you can light your tap water on fire.

The flaming tap water comes from a scene in the recent documentary Gasland, which I admit I have not seen, but it got a lot of press (being visually explosive), and I did see it in the trailer to the film. Anyway, industry front groups are claiming it is all blown out of proportion using phrases such as “proven technological advancement which allows natural gas producers to safely recover natural gas from deep shale formations” (from hydraulicfracturing.com, a site branded with the Chesapeake Energy logo, so its gotta be good, right?). Relying more on the Myth of the Technological Solution™ they further state:

Properly conducted modern hydraulic fracturing is a safe, sophisticated, highly engineered and controlled procedure.

Now don’t you feel better? Industry tells us it is all fine. Who are you going to believe, those with economic interests at stake or your lying eyes? Of course this is par for the course; tobacco has no bad health effects, nuclear power is clean, safe, and too cheap to meter, and republicans care about reducing deficits. And then there is this from the vacuously named Energy In Depth PR organization set up by the American Petroleum Institute (as quoted in the document Affirming Gasland):

For an avant-garde filmmaker and stage director whose previous work has been recognized by the “Fringe Festival” of New York City . . .

Boy, that is a lot of dog whistling crammed into one half of a sentence. Avant-garde equals out of the mainstream and not a real American. Filmmaker equals Hollywood liberal. Stage director? He must be a little fey. And fringe? What else is there to say? And of course New York City is full of Jews and others of questionable morals. I am sure Josh Fox, Gasland‘s director, could commiserate with Michael Moore on the travails of exposing the dark underbelly of business and financial interests.

And please recall the stink republicans put up about defunding the EPA as part of its budget negotiations demands. It had to do with things such as this: the EPA has just released its Draft Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan. Realize this is a draft of a proposed study. That is, it is not too late to keep the government from trying to protect its citizens from water pollution. Not that they have much to worry about anyway (see regulatory capture).

The press release for the draft plan states that the “overall purpose of the study is to understand the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources.” Beyond this issue, a new study by researchers at Cornell University, as characterized in an article from The Hill, claims that the production of natural gas through fracking “contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more.”

The issue here has to do with the current PR campaign by the natural gas industry pushing the idea that its product is more environmentally friendly than its hydrocarbon competitors, oil and coal. Yes, and a sharp stick in the eye is different from a dull stick puncturing your orb, but blinded is blinded (if only in one eye). Again from the hydraulicfracuring site:

This discovery has the potential to not only dramatically reduce our reliance on foreign fuel imports, but also to significantly reduce our national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and accelerate our transition to a carbon-light environment. Simply put, deep shale gas formation development is critical to America’s energy needs and economic renewal.

And yet, we make no headway in developing non-fossil fuel alternatives in this country. Notice the use of the jingoistic term “foreign fuel imports.” We should reduce our use of hydrocarbons regardless of where they come from. Economic renewal? Hardly. Instead we leave it open for the Chinese to capture all of the patents and become the world leader in the future of energy.

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