The Split Personality of Hydraulic Fracturing
There is wide agreement among most experts and the public that the current energy sources we use in the United States are in need of a replacement. Reliance on the fossil fuels of coal and oil are problematic for at least two reasons: their negative impact on the environment (both in extraction and their use) and the reliance on supplies of these from other countries, which has created problems on the geopolitical front. Nuclear fission remains a controversial alternative, considering the risks involved in a catastrophic meltdown and the lack of a long-term waste storage solution. The successful development of horizontal drilling by the energy industry coupled with the existing technology of hydraulic fracturing has been presented as a means to solve both problems at once, providing access to 100 years’ worth of energy in the form of natural gas located within our own borders, albeit thousands of feet below the surface. It was thought that these natural gas deposits, “homegrown” and cleaner-burning than other fossil fuels, could at least buy us some time and be a reliable bridge to future clean energy. However, in recent years this narrative has come under increased scrutiny as environmental groups, scientists, and average citizens have raised concerns about the true impact of hydraulic fracturing. So the question must be asked: What are the potential economic and security benefits of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, and do they outweigh the negative environmental and health impacts of this practice? Commonsense, foundational regulation — based on the scientific process and not politics — should be instituted at the federal level to ensure that basic safety and environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing are addressed to encourage further industry innovations while not discouraging further economic investment in our vital natural gas resources. The current buzz surrounding natural gas has occurred for a couple of reasons. First, it has long been understood that natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel. It contains approximately 25% less carbon than oil, and 50% less than coal (McGlynn 1053). Additionally, unlike coal, there are no heavy metals in its composition (Marsa) so burning it is considerably less toxic. These features made gas naturally attractive to environmental advocates as an alternative to current energy production. But the properties of the gas itself were never, and still are not, viewed as the problem. Initially, the problem was simply that there was not enough extractable natural gas available to comprise a viable alternative to coal and oil. Although the history of drilling for natural gas goes back as far as drilling for petroleum, much of the discovered gas was deemed unrecoverable. While the U.S. sits on over 60 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves (EIA 4), they are situated under large shale rock formations. Due to the particular properties of shale, natural gas deposits under these formations are very wide and shallow (Marsa). Traditional vertical drilling, while possible, is not cost effective. One well is simply inadequate to extract the necessary volume of gas to turn a profit. It would take dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wells to extract enough natural gas to be useful. In this regard, the industry and the environmentalists were on the same page. The cost just wouldn’t be worth it. This scenario changed with the introduction of horizontal drilling. With technology adapted from offshore oil rigs, a horizontal drill head can push through shallow gas deposits a mile away from the wellhead. Government and private enterprise partnered to develop techniques for shallow deposit extraction on land. Based on this preliminary work, Mitchell Energy experimented with its use on the Barnett Shale deposit in Texas and their results were copied by others there and along the Fayetteville Shale deposit under Arkansas (EIA 4)....
Cited: Bigham, Roy. “Fracking Misunderstood.” Editorial. Pollution Engineering. BNP Media. 44.8 (2012): 7-7. Web. 13 Oct 2012.
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