Fracking: Electricity Cost Reducer or Environmental Hazard?

Introduction

In a series of commercials that have been airing in the United States, an attractive blonde actress discusses the various merits of natural gas. She mentions that natural gas is a clean burning fuel and mentions how natural gas is safely brought to the surface. In another series of commercials for another company, various spokespeople praise the merits of natural gas. In one commercial in that series, a male scientist who works for the company boasts that America has sufficient natural gas reserves to serve its energy needs, and provide lower energy and electricity costs for the next hundred years.

Fracking? Whats That?

The natural gas deposits in question are not located not in liquefied pockets which can extracted simply by drilling a well. Instead, these natural gas reserves are trapped between layers of sedimentary deposits of shale. This fact is reflected in the names of two of Americas largest natural gas deposits: the Marcellus Shale and the Barnett Shale.

To access the natural gas in each of these deposits, it is first necessary to free them from the layers of sediment in which they are located. This is accomplished by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the sediment layers at high pressure. The force of the water, along with the sand and chemicals, breaks up the rock sediments and allows the natural gas to be extracted, and then brought to the surface where it is refined.

The Marcellus Shale and the Barnett Shale

The Barnett Shale and the Marcellus Shale represent two of the largest known natural gas deposits in the United States, and perhaps in the world. Along with this countrys vast coal deposits, these reserves hold the promise that this country could once again regain energy independence, and with it, lower energy and electricity costs. These deposits have little in common except for the fact that each contains vast reserves of natural gas.

The Barnett Shale, located in Texas, covers approximately 34 million acres of underground shale deposits. The hot, dry climate in Texas, along with the generally flat terrain, makes the process of fracking relatively easy. Texas is also in the midst of Americas traditional oil country, with a workforce and support industries geared toward drilling, extraction and distilling crude energy fuels.

By contrast, the Marcellus Shale covers some 118 million acres of land, much of it beneath hills and surface water. Fracking operations there must take pains to avoid polluting surface water or contaminating groundwater in the area. The four seasons experienced by the Northeastern United States also poses a challenge to fracking operations, especially during the cold winter months.

Conflicting Claims

This claim of regaining energy independence is especially appealing, given the economic and political instability of many oil producing regions throughout the world. And it is true that the United States holds vast reserves of natural gas within its borders. The Barnett Shale is located in Texas, while the much larger Marcellus Shale is situated beneath a large section of the Eastern Seaboard.

However, the claim that natural gas is being safely extracted from these sources is somewhat problematic, if not controversial. The extraction method to which the actress refers is known as hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking. Fracking has allegedly been linked with varied problems, from massive water use to earthquakes and ground water pollution from the chemicals used in the process.

The consensus on fracking is decidedly mixed. Supporters claim that fracking can be conducted safely, and that tapping this countrys vast natural gas reserves is essential to regaining energy independence. An unpublished document produced by the New York State Health Department in 2012 claims that fracking could indeed be done safely with proper oversight and stringent safety requirements. Other reports claim that there are strong links between fracking and abnormal earthquake activity in Ohio.

The Mythology of Gasland

In the 2010 documentary titled Gasland , the filmmaker makes the case that fracking represents an immediate threat to the groundwater supply of vast areas of the country, superficially as result of contamination from the fluid used in the fracking process. In a famous scene from the documentary, a landowner runs the tap in his kitchen sink, then lights a match under the running water, which shoots out huge flames. The scene is authentic; however, the link between the landowners flammable water and groundwater contamination from fracking has been called into question.

In fact, an independent investigation of the wells on that particular landowners property revealed that the flames resulted from a natural pocket of methane that had been breached when the original well had been dug. On the other hand, no evidence of contamination from chemicals associated with fracking was disclosed in that particular case.

Fracking and Groundwater Contamination

While the claim of groundwater contamination in the particular example highlighted in Gasland was refuted, other claims of groundwater contamination from fracking have proven to be credible. For instance, the state of Pennsylvania fined the Chesapeake Energy Company more than one million dollars in May2011. The fine was designated as compensation to sixteen families located in Bradford County whose wells were determined to have been contaminated by fracking operations in the area conducted by Chesapeake Energy Company. The fine also covered expenses associated with a tank fire.

Earthquakes and Fracking

Credible connections have also been made between fracking and abnormal earthquake activity. In a 2012 article, MIT Technology Review reported that Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma, among several other states, had experienced a spike in seismic activity in areas adjacent to fracking operations. The specific source of this increased seismic stated several states, including Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma, experienced increased seismic activity in areas where fracking had taken place. The source of this increased seismic activity was believed to be the disposal of wastewater resulting from injecting fracking fluid into layers of shale to access natural gas deposits.

Likewise, earthquake activity measuring between 2.7 and 4.0 on the Richter Scale was recorded in Youngstown, Ohio on New Years Eve in 2011 was also credibly linked to fracking, according to an article published in Scientific American. The culprit in this case was also wastewater from fracking which was injected into sandstone layers beneath the surface. During the period between March and November 2011, nine smaller quakes had occurred in an area immediately adjacent to a wastewater injection site, although earthquakes are normally rare in this region of the country.

Fracking and Water Demands

All forms of drilling consume enormous amounts of fresh water, a significant portion of which is transformed into wastewater. However, fracking consumes much more water than conventional oil and gas drilling, and produces proportionately more wastewater. Even if technology is developed to safely extract natural gas from shale, water consumption must be addressed before fracking can receive an environmental green light.

Sam Jones keenly watches the energy market  researching and reviewing the best energy supplier, He suggests people compare electricity prices on uSwitch.com for gas and electric at the lowest possible rates

 

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