When I am not listening to podcasts on my daily commute, I often turn to NPR (National Public Radio) for some thoughtful stories. Though I missed yesterday’s edition, a friend sent me a link to an interesting story titled Face-Off Over ‘Fracking’: Water Battle Brews On Hill that describes the growing concern in some areas of the country over the effects of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”), which is a the technique that is used to enable extraction of “tight” gas from shale deposits.
The technique works by forcing water and/or chemicals into a combustible gas-containing shale rock formation at high pressures. This cracks the rock and allows trapped gas to travel more freely to the collecting wells. Even though I know just a bit about geology, I have always had a few questions about the long term impacts of this technique. One aspect that I had not thought much about was the potential effect on ground water, the source of many people’s drinking water. (I feel pretty close to this issue since we use well water.)
Apparently there are some places where fracking based gas extraction has caused ground water contamination – seems kind of logical that breaking the rock so that gas can move to the wells drilled for gas extraction can also enable the gases to move to wells drilled for water extraction. The desired product in one type of well is a contaminant in the other. In both cases, there are contaminants that no one really wants – like hydrogen sulfide, the source of the infamous “rotten egg” smell that makes many groundwater reservoirs undrinkable. Though that problem is fairly common, the complaints described in the NPR story come from people whose water was fine until someone decided to conduct a fracking based exploration nearby.
According to the story, the natural gas industry managed to get an exemption from EPA regulation of their activities and now claim that imposing an additional layer of federal regulation would result in an increased price for natural gas. The story included a quote that reminds me of several common statements that I hear in my day job that just drive me bonkers:
“We have no evidence that hydraulic fracturing is causing problems,” says Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Without evidence of problems, he says there’s no reason to pile on more regulation.
Of course, you have no evidence of problems, Mr. Fuller. I would bet that you refuse to look at any of the studies and have no intention of conducting any of your own.
(Aside: It is very much like a bureaucrat in Washington saying “We have not seen any evidence that there are any maintenance issues on ships, so we have no worries about continuing to reduce the maintenance budgets so we can spend more money on cost overruns for new ships and airplanes. Go away, Commander and stop trying to show me that study or share those emails and blogs from experienced maintenance professionals.“)
Bottom line – go listen to the story and think about all of those marketing messages from the gas/oil industry and its establishment environmental group defenders about how “natural” gas is a “clean” fuel. How natural is it to force millions of gallons of fluid into our foundational rocks to crack them so gas can flow? How clean is a fuel that results in ground water contamination even under normal circumstances?