August 21, 2011

The truth about fracking

Who do we believe? Or trust? The debate continues. . .

The oil industry touts the safety of fracking (fracturing shale rock with huge amounts of sand, chemicals and water to drive the gas to the surface), yet some folks in Pennsylvania can ignite the methane now in their drinking water at the faucet (as seen in the Gasland documentary).

An ExxonMobil ad promises an estimated 2500 trillion cubic feet in natural gas, enough to meet our energy needs for more than 100 years, as "an amazing resource for Americans" and describes the fracking process as a "responsible way to produce it." Their reassuring graphic depicts a natural gas well with groundwater just under the surface and a VERY deep (1.5 miles) pipeline, with "multiple steel and cement barriers" surrounding it. Surely no reason to worry--if you trust the mining engineers, drilling equipment and regulatory powers. Texas Governor Rick Perry trusts them, what about you?

Many environmental groups have demanded a nationwide moratorium on more fracking. While in New York state's Finger Lakes region this summer, I saw anti-fracking signs in many front yards.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu's expert panel agrees that natural gas is an abundant and increasingly important fuel that emits only half the carbon dioxide emitted by coal. This panel also warns that hydraulic fracturing presents real risks to the air, water and land that must be addressed by energy companies and federal and state regulators. The risks to water quality are real, as well as the challenge of safely disposing of the water used in the fracking (called "flowback"). Is it better to store that water, along with the accompanying chemicals, in onsite retention ponds? Or inject it back into the earth?

Gas companies now extract 30 percent of our natural gas through this process, so these concerns are growing. The public is getting wary, after watching the oil industry's recent spills. We are not now so trusting--of either industry or government.

Then there's the air quality issue. Can we afford to allow any escaping methane in the gas to join the existing greenhouses gases?  Let's hope the industry can prevent leaks better than BP's "preventer" did in the Gulf a year ago.

Stay tuned as this becomes a bigger campaign issue.