What the frack? Unearthing the truth about natural gas

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By Greg Brenn

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo still has not budged in his neutral stance to allow natural gas drilling in the Marcellus and Utica Shales of Southern New York.

Recently, natural gas has been leading the United States toward energy independence, predominantly due to increasing technologies in harnessing energy from unconventional tight and shale gas resources. Multiple energy outlook studies, most notably the Energy Information Administration’s 2013 Annual Energy Outlook, highlights that the United States has the potential to be energy independent through 2040, with domestic energy production exceeding consumption.

This prescience is correlated with the increase in our domestic natural gas reserves, which is positive news from an economic perspective, but from a scientific perspective, the depth of non-biased data and research available to the public addressing the environmental hazards of natural gas drilling is nebulous and surprisingly difficult to find, which may be the reason why Cuomo is not pulling the drill trigger.

While attempting to find peer-reviewed research studies, avoiding the documentary propaganda of Gasland and its sequel, which are riddled with flagrant inaccuracies that director Josh Fox passes as truth, one study by Duke University researchers concluded that stray gases contaminated drinking water for homes 1km from Marcellus Shale drilling sites in northeastern PA (Jackson, R et al., 2013). However, baseline data of the tested wells before drilling began was not available for this study, so identifying a direct link between the stray gas and natural gas drilling cannot be made.

Another study conducted from Texas’ Barnett Shale found evidence of elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in groundwater located in close proximity to natural gas extraction (Fontenot, B.E., et al., 2013). Once again, this study does not directly link fracking fluid leakage to the prevalence of heavy metals, due to samples taken from wells with no evidence of contamination.

Yet another concern about hydraulic fracturing is induced seismicity associated with fracking fluid injection. A study conducted by a UT Austin professor, who analyzed seismicity in the Barnett Shale region of North Texas, concluded that earthquakes with magnitudes less than 3.0 have epicenters located within 2 miles of injection sites; however, these recorded earthquakes are too small to pose any danger to the public (Frohlich, C, 2012).

Injection sites with comparatively high injection rates were found to have no evidence of induced seismicity, possibly due to differing geologic landscapes with injection fluids relieving friction on faults already prone to slip. Although these studies are unbiased, they make evident that it’s extremely difficult to confidently link environmental hazards with specific hydraulic fracturing and natural gas extraction processes. With hydraulic fracturing technology performed commercially (albeit not at current drilling rates) since the 1950s, would we already have seen the environmental effects of over 60 years of drilling? It is obvious that fracking contains serious safety concerns, but are these concerns any more serious than risks associated with off-shore oil drilling, nuclear power generation or coal mining?

In 2014 the EPA will release a comprehensive report on the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water resources, which will probably play an important role in Governor Cuomo’s decision (or lack thereof) to begin drilling into New York’s abundant shale resources.

Possibly the fracking opposition may be fueled by the growing need for developing renewable energy sources, but as one has noticed, that development has been and will be a slow process, regardless of the conspicuous and rapid climate change that the world is experiencing.

If natural gas could decrease the burning of coal for electricity generation in the U.S. while our country becomes energy independent from outside oil-exporting countries, then we could begin to reduce CO2 emissions, fund renewable energy projects (particularly solar), and gradually create a natural gas/renewable energy symbiosis that will slow down the global warming effects on our planet.

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