Bronze-level articleHydraulic fracturing

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Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short, is a method of extracting natural gas and oil where fluid is shot through a borehole in a rock formation in order to fracture it allowing for an easier mining process. The process has been in use since the 1940s, but recent record-level production (in an attempt to decrease energy dependence from the Middle East) has put it into the spotlight.[1]

It has come under fire due to number of alleged instances of groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania and across the mid-western United States. The safety of fracking operations is also under question due to the fact that newer methods developed over the last decade or so allow much deeper wells to be drilled.

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[edit] Environmental effects

It's difficult to definitively link specific cases of groundwater contamination with fracking. The EPA has acknowledged past cases[2] and a possible current case in Wyoming,[3] but the extent to which current cases of contamination are caused by fracking or natural causes is still speculative. A 2011 study by Duke University researchers found increased levels of methane in drinking water near fracking sites but this doesn't demonstrate a "smoking gun" link.[4] Another issue with the practice is that energy companies are not required to disclose what chemicals are used in the fracking fluid (most of it is just water and sand, but may include diesel oil as a Congressional probe revealed).[5]

Researchers are looking into tracer chemicals, which could lace the high-pressure liquids used for fracturing.[6] That way, any nearby groundwater that became contaminated could be tested for these tracer chemicals, eliminating the was-it-us-or-wasn't-it guesswork that plagues the issue today. Getting fracking companies to agree to put these tracer chemicals in their liquid voluntarily is almost certainly a losing proposition, however; regulation and oversight would almost certainly be necessary.

Besides contamination of groundwater, another issue is the release of "fugitive" methane into the atmosphere. Because methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, it could significantly worsen global warming if sufficient amounts are released.[7][8] And that's just fraked up.

Finally, there are the issues of earthquakes. The disposal of used fluid can cause small tectonic plates to come loose and cause an earthquake. While they are low strength quakes, they become impressively more frequent around areas with these wells.

[edit] Basic geology

The layer of black shale is down in the subsurface several thousand feet. If you can drill down to that level, the hydrofracturing cracks do not extend more than 1000 feet or so; the ends of the cracks are still going to be several thousand feet below the surface (where wells and aquifers sit). The image of turning on a water faucet and having natural gas leak out, in general those are situations where they have sunk their well into a sandstone that has already filled with gas; that gas is naturally accumulating.[9]

The idea that deep-injected fluids will migrate into groundwater is false. Basic geology prevents such contamination from starting below ground. A fracture caused by the drilling process would have to extend through the several thousand feet of rock that separate deep shale gas deposits from freshwater aquifers. According to geologist Gary Lash of the Fredonia State University, the intervening layers of rock have distinct mechanical properties that would prevent the fissures from expanding a mile or more toward the surface. It would be like stacking a dozen bricks on top of each other, he says, and expecting a crack in the bottom brick to extend all the way to the top one. What's more, the fracking fluid itself, thickened with additives, is too dense to ascend upward through such a channel.[10]

A video of a Colorado resident setting his tap water on fire due to gas seeping into the water supply has been circulating around the Internet for some time.[11] Mike Markham, a landowner, ignites his tap water. However, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which tested Markham's water in 2008, there were "no indications of oil & gas related impacts to water well." Instead the investigation found that the methane was "biogenic" in nature, meaning it was naturally occurring and that his water well was drilled into a natural gas pocket.[12]

[edit] Politics

In 2005, the "Halliburton Loophole" inserted into the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by Joe Barton at the behest of Dick Cheney prevented EPA oversight of fracking.[13] Which should tell you something. Two versions of a bill called the FRAC Act were proposed in 2009 and have been stuck in legislative purgatory ever since.[14]

In 2012 the Council on Foreign Relations argued that the reduction of gas prices could have a major impact on Russia. 60% of Russia's federal revenues come from energy exports and any reduction in income from gas would be catastrophic, and in 2014 that became very relevant. Economic necessity and looming bankruptcy could one day force political reform. The article suggests that Russia has therefore financed environmental groups to oppose unconventional gas extraction methods like hydraulic fracturing, because there aren't normally protests in these countries. Because of large, country-wide protests, Bulgaria and Czech Republic have banned this technology.[15]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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