This method of extraction, despite its polarization and controversies has shifted the United States from a waning producer of natural gas to a growing producer. The Energy Information Administration has estimated by the year 2035 nearly half of all U.S. natural gas will come from hydraulically fractured shale gas. Out of the 8 states and coastal areas in America, Texas has the largest verified reservoirs of natural gas. Texas’ Barnett shale already accounts for 6 percent of the continental U.S.’ natural gas and continuing exploration of Texas’ other shale gas regions promise to increase the production to even further heights.
Some states have headed the calls of environmentalists, and have placed hydraulic fracturing moratoriums in place, due to fears of contamination of drinking water stored in underground aquifers. The federal government has also taken limited actions, to the dismay of energy companies, and states like Texas claiming they are over reaching, and stepping beyond the limits of state vs. national rule.
It is not a matter of debate that in order to continue our lifestyles at a level we are used to, we will need to find an alternative source of power. However what is the cost to the environment that we are willing to accept? Are we willing to contaminate our drinking water, just to be able to keep up with the newest and greatest electronics? Mankind survived for tens of thousands of years; however the human body will begin to shut down completely after a few days without water.
While we have become largely dependent on electricity, it is not vital to the survival of the individual. If we are to embrace a method of extracting gas that not only uses hundreds of gallons of water to produce the natural gas, but also contaminates the natural ground water reservoirs with toxic and flammable chemicals, what will that mean to future society and their daily lives? How are we going to explain to our grandchildren that water is more valuable than gold, because we didn’t want to take the time to study the effects of hydraulic fracturing?
In 2010 a documentary by Josh Fox called “Gasland” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and received a special jury prize for documentary, and was later aired on HBO. The film was very influential in sparking grass roots movements, political opposition, and calls for regulatory action at state, local, and federal levels. The film covers many of the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, including its hazardous waste management practices, the large land footprint of drilling operations, the necessary infrastructure required to support these large drilling operations, and several examples of explosively contaminated tap water being able to light on fire directly out of the sink. The tap water was so contaminated that even though it was water (fires natural enemy) it was easily lit on fire, while still flowing directly from the tap.
The state of Texas has 5 major shale gas “plays” (The term ‘‘play’’ is used by the oil and gas industry to denote a specific geographical area that is targeted for exploration) and has played a significant role in demonstrating hydraulic fracturing technologies. The largest of these Texas “plays” is the Barnett play, located in north central Texas. It was the first “play” to be exploited nationally. Between 2005 and 2007 almost all hydraulic fracturing wells were drilled successfully in the Barnett Shale Play.
One of the more controversial, and debated side-effects of hydraulic fracturing, is that a byproduct of the fraking process is that is in can trigger earthquakes along fault lines. Reports of persistent tremors, while relatively small, have been reported in areas close to hydraulic fracturing sites. Supporters of hydraulic fracturing have claimed that the possibility of ground water contamination is minimal, due to the fact that the wells are drilled far below fresh water aquifers. However, testing on these aquifers has shown that this is simply not the case; that the depths have little to no effect on the containment of the hazardous chemicals.
Hydraulic fractures are created by pumping fracturing fluids into horizontal wells, at pressures exceeding the breaking point of the rocks. The fraking fluids contain water, sand, ceramic ‘‘propping’’ agents, and other chemicals to keep the rocks fractures from closing. Shale gas reserves are typically fractured in stages, about 60 meters at a time, and fracture many times, 10 or more times. The sheer volume of water required is astounding, the Environmental Protection Agency, estimates that each individual well requires between 2 and 5 million gallons of water, depending on the depth, horizontal distance, and amount of times fractured. Some of the waste water is returned to the surface and is called flow-back; however the amount recovered varies from well to well, ranging from about 15% to 80% of the water initially forced into the ground.
This flow-back must be treated due to the chemicals both intentionally inserted into it, and chemicals picked up from the rocks that were fractured. In some areas the water is not treated, and is simply pumped back into the ground. While the fraking fluid is typically more than 99% water, other components are used. These substances are generally considered proprietary so drilling companies are not required to disclose their content (although there is a growing movement among states to require them to disclose what chemicals are used).
On December 7th 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency, issued an endangerment order against Barnett Shale Gas Company in Fort Worth, Texas. The company was ordered to take immediate steps to protect local home owners, after increasing complaints of bubbling, and flammable tap water. EPA testing showed significant quantities of methane gas in tap water that was at risk of explosions and/or fires. The homeowners had previously reported the issues to the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), the state regulatory authority for the gas and oil industry, but the RRC was either unable, or unwilling to take adequate action. The EPA confirmed that the tap water contained both methane gas, and benzene (a known carcinogen).
While the Environmental Protection Agency continues to investigate the connection between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination, there is very little federal oversight of the process, leaving the regulation (or lack of regulation) lack up to the states. On May 25, 2010 representatives of more than 20 local and regional organizations called on the New York state legislators to put in place a moratorium on HF over the Marcellus Shale. The groups expressed concerns over danger posed to human health and the environment associated with fraking fluid chemicals, toxic waste, and waste-water generated. Particular concern has resulted because the drinking water supply for New York City is in upstate New York and opponents fear its vulnerability to contamination from HF operations in the Marcellus Shale.
Other steps to improve the safety of Hydraulic fracturing include the state of Colorado requiring partial revelation of chemicals added to fraking fluids in the event of an emergency. This disclosure, however, is only to physicians and regulators and not to the general public, thereby preserving private drillers’ trade secrets.
Wyoming’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission initially required drillers to report chemicals used in HF operations to the Commission, but like the Colorado regulation, disclosure was shielded from the public. But as of September 15, 2010 the state requires that companies fully disclose to the public every chemical used in the hydraulic fracturing operations. If Texas were to adopt similar policies requiring full disclosure of chemical usage, it would allow for a well informed decision on the future of fraking. Without full disclosure, how can there be any scientific studies on its effect on the environment, and ground water.
In a world with dwindling resources and increasing populations, these controversial methods of extracting natural gas seem foolish at best and malicious at worst. Companies are putting profits over the well-being of current and future generations, with little to no tests on the long term effects of hydraulic fracturing. With wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and other environmentally friendly technologies becoming ever more efficient, the idea of destroying the limited amount of fresh drinking water for a few gallons of natural gas seem completely absurd. Instead of investing in this environmental destroying method of producing electricity we need to work on improving and designing new methods of environmentally friendly electrical production.
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