By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Natural gas drilling techniques have either advanced or deteriorated, depending on your viewpoint, with the increased use of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.
Fracking is being used to release gas from hard shale deposits in various hot spots across the U.S. and the world. It has allowed gas companies to access gas supplies that were not viable with traditional drilling methods, opening up a spigot that could supply the U.S. for years to come and launching a drumbeat for domestic natural gas to become the “bridge” fuel to the future, because it burns cleanly in combustion engines and because it has created thousands with much-needed jobs.
Critics, however, say fracking comes with a high environmental cost and even its promise of increased U.S. supplies could go unfulfilled if speculators sell the gas off on the global market. Gas companies, they say, are overly optimistic about natural gas production, with evidence emerging that fracked wells may run strongly for a few years, then diminish to a trickle, potentially hurting investors and landowner leasees.
But for the public, the bigger immediate risk with fracking continues to be the potential damage to water supplies, and to the atmosphere.
Concern for the rivers feeding the state prompted the New Jersey legislature to pass a ban on fracking by a robust vote of 33-1 in the state’s Senate, and 58-11 in the Assembly, last week. The measure could be vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie or it could lead to a compromise moratorium.
“By passing this bill the Legislature has protected New Jersey’s drinking water for future generations and sent a clear message to other states that we need to ban fracking because it is too dangerous,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the NJ Sierra Club.
New York has operated under an effective fracking ban for the past few years, while it awaits an environmental impact study. Hundreds of protesters have argued that the watershed, positioned above the gas-rich Marcellus Shale, which supplies New York City and other cities and towns with legendarily clean drinking water, should be sacrosanct.
Still, the state government faces pressure to allow the industry to drill in new areas, especially those rural regions in prime shale gas territory that could use new jobs.
The bottomline: New York’s effective moratorium could soon be lifted as the study is completed, but the state is expected to restrict drilling in the NYC and Syracuse watersheds, over other aquifers and on public lands, according to ProPublica and other news sources.
Meanwhile, in greener-leaning Europe where Germany just announced a phase out of nuclear power, France has decided not to test the environmental integrity of fracked wells. Senators there voted last week to ban natural gas fracturing, making France the first country in the world to do so. Conventional gas drilling will still be allowed.
Where fracking has been most extensive — in North Texas and rural Pennsylvania, and Wyoming — it has fueled bitter debate. Land owners have seen water wells contaminated after gas drilling commenced nearby and residents of proposed and active drilling sites have realized the vast water price tag of fracking, which consumes millions of gallons of water per well.
Proponents of natural gas shrug off these concerns as either overblown or fabricated (oilman T. Boone Pickens has said he knows of no specific incident of proven water contamination from fracking). Natural gas is needed, and fracking can deliver the fuel safely if firms act responsibly and install durable well linings, industry leaders say.
But opponents organized into dozens of citizens groups across the U.S. have stood firm, saying that fracking:
- Consumes exhorbitant amounts of water. Fracking requires injecting millions of gallons of water greased with toxic lubricants and chemicals into the ground vertically and then horizontally to blast open natural gas deposits. The water cannot be recovered.
- Is too risky. By injecting chemicals into the ground and blasting open fissures in the rock, the fracking process introduces toxic waste that has the potential to migrate into water supplies
- Has above-ground environmental consequences. A large percentage of the injected water is drawn back out of the well. This “produced water” is hazardous and requires special handling and storage, introducing additional risk of contaminating soil or water.
- Releases greenhouse gases, specifically methane and nitrous oxide. The former is a potent contributor to climate change. The latter creates ozone, which is immediately damaging to human health.
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