I learned something new and useful while watching Energy Now’s July 24, 2011 show titled The Promise and Problems of Shale Gas. If I want to attempt to get an honest answer from natural gas industry promoters about the potential hazards of extracting natural gas from unconventional formations like coal beds and shale, I cannot ask them if “fracking” is safe.
Apparently, the term “fracking” is a term of art that only applies to the specific part of the process that involves pressurizing the formation to break up the tight rocks and stimulate flow. It does not include any of the other major steps in the process including building the pads, installing the industrial infrastructure, drilling the well, casing the well, transporting the equipment and fracking fluids, or disposing of the produced fluids that come out of the well after the frack is complete and the well is producing gas.
Because the industry insiders narrowly define what “fracking” is, industry cheerleaders believe that they can look all of the rest of us in the eye and say something like the following without blinking:
“There has never been a documented case of water being affected by fracking for Marcellus shale. Yes, there are sections of this state where you can turn on the tap and light your water on fire. Methane is in the water. That is caused by irresponsible drilling 50 and 60 years ago.”
(Quote from phillyburbs.com quoting Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley in an article titled Cawley: No evidence of pollution from fracking dated Sun Jun 5, 2011. The article indicated that the statement was made on Friday, June 3, 2011.)
The above linked episode of Energy Now does a terrific job of laying out the plusses and minuses of unconventional natural gas production. That is almost surprising, considering the fact that Energy Now is a news program whose production budget comes from the American Clean Skies Foundation, a group that was founded by Aubry McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy. Chesapeake Energy is one of the country’s leading producers of natural gas and one of the primary developers of the technique of extracting gas from tight shale formations using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Maybe there is finally going to be more factual discussion in which the benefits of shale gas in terms of economic development in specific areas and financial rewards for certain landowners and corporations can be balanced against the negatives of the development.
- How long will the economic benefits of low natural gas prices actually last?
- Are today’s prices really an aberration caused by the confluence of a new technique and weak demand?
- Is there any truth to my suspicion that some gas producers are dumping their product on the market?
- Are they engaging in a short term price war to delay the construction of competitive new nuclear power plants?
- Is the Marcellus experience applicable to those shale formations that are not conveniently located near large markets and existing pipeline infrastructure?
My advice to you is to watch the Energy Now show and to think about how you would feel if you were a resident, but not a large landowner, in an area that is being targeted for shale gas development. Would you accept the arguments that it is all for the greater good?
I am going to make this very personal. I live in a town where the nuclear industry is a major employer. In the recently developed neighborhood where I just bought a house, there are dozens of “For Sale” signs on homes where the owners have been transferred within just a year or so of purchasing their house. Not all, but some of those owners work for Areva, a company that was hiring like crazy from 2005-2009 to get ready for an expected “nuclear renaissance.” Temporarily low natural gas prices have been used as the basis for electricity production company decisions to defer nuclear projects like Calvert Cliffs Unit 3, one of the deferred projects that would have kept hundreds to thousands of people in my town busy.
If those nuclear plants were being built, they would also be providing thousands of good construction jobs, excellent manufacturing jobs, engineering jobs, technical writing jobs, and security jobs. Many of those jobs would last for two generations of employees since nuclear plants are being designed for 60 year lifetimes. Contrasted with that lost opportunity for sustainable, clean energy development, the extraction of unconventional natural gas does not look like such a boon to me.