Energy industry executives say there is enough natural gas in the ground under the United States to provide America with abundant energy far into the foreseeable future. They claim our natural gas reserves equal or exceed the oil reserves remaining in the Middle East.
Think what tapping that energy could mean. No more dependency on foreign oil. America would become energy independent for the first time in the past 50 years. We would no longer have to kowtow to emirs, sheiks and other unstable potentates for the fuel we need to keep our economy strong.
That’s pretty heady stuff, isn’t it? Yes, it is. But there’s a catch. Most of that gas is trapped in layers of shale deep underground. Getting to it and releasing it from the rock is difficult. To do so, the energy companies employ a process known as “fracking”, short for “hydraulic fracturing.”
In order to release the gas, energy companies drill down into the shale, then force a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under tremendous pressure into it, fracturing the rock and releasing the trapped gas. The sand keeps the layers of shale separated so the gas can flow outward. The chemicals, we are told, enhance the process. So far, so good.
Except that people in the communities near where fracking has taken place report small earthquakes and contaminated wells. Some say their tap water sometimes bursts into flames. The energy companies say there’s no connection between these phenomena and their fracking operations. They have started large scale advertising campaigns to tout how safe the fracking process is. These campaigns emphasize how important access to these reserves is for our nation. They imply that opponents are unpatriotic.
The controversy has become quite heated. What makes many people angry is that the companies refuse to say exactly what chemicals they are pumping into the ground, claiming that information is a trade secret. The companies ask us to trust that the process is safe. Opponents argue that we can’t assess the risks to ourselves and our families if we don’t know what the companies are putting into the ground.
Early in 2012, the Energy Institute of the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) released a report entitled ‘Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in the Shale Gas Development,’ which claimed there was no relationship between fracking and ground water contamination. The study was once posted on the UTA website but is no longer available. All reference to it at the UTA Energy Institute webpage has been expunged.
That’s because of a review of the report by the Public Accountability Initiative entitled How a University of Texas Fracking Study Led by a Gas Industry Insider Spun the Facts and Misled the Public. The PAI review found that the principal author of the UTA study, Dr. Charles Groat, sat on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company, a drilling company that relies heavily on fracking, for the past five years. During that time he was paid $1,500,000 for his services.
Trust the energy companies? Sure. Trust them as much as we trusted the tobacco companies, Enron, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs? No problem. After all, they wouldn’t lie, would they?
To some, the promise of shale gas is an illusion, one that will turn our country into a contaminated morass the way the coal industry has done to West Virginia. For them, the danger of fracking is just one part of the global dilemma associated with making oil, gas and coal the basis of our prosperity. Historically, America’s military has been exploited as much to protect natural resources as it has liberty and freedom. Looking ahead, continued reliance on extractive technology will divert our attention from the critically important process of learning how to harness clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and tidal power.
Enough energy from the sun lands on the surface of the Earth in one hour to meet our entire global energy needs for a year. But by the time we learn to harness that power, will we have irretrievably polluted our earthly home to the point where it is unfit for human habitation?