The Fracking Controversy

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.”

Marcellus Shale deposits in the northeastern US. Source: WikiPedia

Location of Marcellus shale deposits in the northeastern US

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.

How the fracking process works.

How the fracking process works. Source: ProPublica

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.

Oh.

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?

Coal Slag

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About Steve Hanley

Totally enamored with my family, my grandkids, and seeing the world.
This entry was posted in Energy Policy, Fracking, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Fracking Controversy

  1. Tony Brown says:

    I’m not bothered about the contamination issue – after all, the world is pretty well polluted already. No, I’m more worried about the earthquake issue. It’s already happened in the UK yet they have reauthorised only this week the continuation of fracking.

  2. Carlos Quatro Pesca says:

    This article was easy to follow and well-researched. Thanks for explaining it!

  3. Jason Carpp says:

    Fracking? Define fracking. I’ve heard the word before, but I’ve never known what it is or what’s going on.

  4. Steve Hanley says:

    Thanks to Tony, Carlos and Jason for your input. Tony, the oil and gas industry has millions to spend when it comes to influencing government. Human kind reminds me of the snake that eats its own tail until it has consumed itself. Most industrialized countries have been in thrall to the Middle East and other parts of the world that hold large petroleum deposits for the past 70 years or more. All are desperate to become “energy independent”. But will the world be a place that anyone wants to live in when they have realized their dream?

    It seems to me that there is only one energy resource that will last forever (assuming you consider several billion years to be ‘forever’) and that is the sun. In my opinion, that is where our focus should be.

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