Fracking: Good or bad? The experts give their opinions

2012-10-21T07:00:00Z Fracking: Good or bad? The experts give their opinions The Southern
October 21, 2012 7:00 am

Look for facts behind the noise

The hype and sensationalism of the current discussion on fracking are not helping us have an informed debate. In order to make good decisions about whether fracking should be promoted, we need to have much better information and solid scientific data in its environmental impacts and on the economy.

Let us not forget, for example, that in the height of the ethanol boom, numbers on the job creation potential of the industry were sometimes vastly overestimated, largely by confusing temporary construction jobs with permanent ones.

Solid, rigorous analysis of environmental impacts will be harder because these differ from place to place, may take a long time to study and depend on specific technologies. However, this data is absolutely necessary to the discussion and cannot be substituted with partisan information from advocates of one side or the other.

We are moving in the direction of scientific studies; just this week it was announced that an industry/academic consortium will assess methane emissions from fracking.

Methane emissions are a really important environmental concern because one of the benefits of natural gas is its reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as compared to other fossil fuels. If methane leaks out of wells, one of the benefits of fracking is reduced or even eliminated, thereby decreasing the value of the technology to society.

This initiative offers a blueprint for rigorous “bipartisan” assessments. This is the type of effort that is necessary to decide if, when, where and how the use of this technology is overall beneficial to society and needs to be allowed or promoted. Only a thorough analysis of the trade offs of the technology at the regional and national level can really help us make informed — though still not painless — decisions.

There is no question that fracking has economic and energy security benefits — just as there is no question that it has negative environmental impacts. We need to quantify those costs and benefits and decide collectively whether the technology is worth pursuing.

SILVIA SECCHI

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY, DEPARTMENT OF AGRIBUSINESS ECONOMICS

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY

Frack, but first research and regulate

Recent estimates show the United States holds nearly 1,000 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in its shale gas deposits. In fact, the Energy Information Agency attests to these reserve numbers and agrees they will play a significant role in our nation’s energy portfolio. Natural gas is the most popular heating fuel, used by almost half of U.S. households. Currently, natural gas inventories are expected to climb to 3.9 trillion cubic feet by Nov. 1.

The process to extract it involves hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which water and chemicals are pumped into the ground to force out the gas not extractable by conventional means.

However, this process has already, in its relatively short history, caused a great deal of controversy, because of the environmental problems it has caused, including water contamination and higher rates of air pollution than that of coal production. Many focus on the downside to fracking. Concerns about fracking have increased over the past few years as a growing number of communities encounter pressure from the well-funded industry to open up their land and water to industrial drilling. New technologies have made obtaining these deposits cheaper than had been possible in the past, leading to a rapid, global expansion of fracking.

Does it come with some risks? Of course! Fracking fluid is brought back to the surface and it returns far more contaminated than when it was first injected because it picks up underground radioactivity. The partially recaptured frack fluid is then stored in above-ground pits and pools until trucks are brought in to remove it. It is in these surface operations where the greatest risk lies since accidental surface spills are far more likely to contaminate drinking water. The industry always claims that properly operated wells are safe, but they never like to discuss human errors and inevitable accidents.

On the other hand, I challenge everyone to name an energy technology that does not come with some risk. Before someone states “solar energy is clean, free and does not damage the environment” please lookup the process for making solar cells. How about the electronics used in the inverters? Did we know many computer chips are made from a combination of gallium and arsenic? What happens to all of those elements and chemicals as the solar cells and computer chips move through the process? They get rinsed away in the water, which then goes to an onsite water treatment plant for cleanup. There is nothing stopping those companies from discharging their waste water into the environment.

But the most crucial — and almost always overlooked — point about fracking is that shale gas, like all hydrocarbons, can be used only once. The real issue is thus not whether shale gas should be developed, but when it should be used: today or tomorrow.

The fracking process has been going on for several years now and when it first started, the industry was given a “free pass” on most environmental concerns. They were allowed specifically to keep the chemical cocktails secret because they were “proprietary formulas.”

I do believe there are two major issues here. One is the dangerous chemicals used in the process. Industry talks about low percentages, but the volumes are still quite large. Some chemicals have been identified as hazardous in the parts per billion range. A little can go a long way toward hazardous contamination levels.

The second issue is the relationship between the gas fields and aquifers. The two are almost always found in the same places. In nature, the gas and the water are typically separated by layers of rock. The key to extracting the gas is to create open fissures in the rock formations for the gas to collect in. Ideally, the process isn’t supposed to create fissures between the gas reserves and the aquifers. Unfortunately, this does occur.

Proponents claim that natural geological processes, such as earthquakes will create cracks in these rock formations too. Although, that’s true, in nature there is nothing to hold those cracks open and they will seal themselves. The fracking process is designed to create open fissures that do not close very easily. Theoretically, they can control the crack formations so as to keep the water and gas isolated, but in reality they’re really not that good at it.

So, what is my opinion? We have to do it. But we have to explore shale gas using the most safe and environmentally acceptable way. We have to regulate it. As far as I know, today the issue is the current regulations do not address the type of drilling done when fracking.

We need to let science and reason rule. That means the gas industry is going to have to accept some limits and some degree of transparency, given the public’s right to know about things that may affect their drinking water. Environmentalists need to stay focused on the environment, not politics. If there are places where fracking can be done with minimal risk, accept it and embrace it as a way for our country to reduce its addiction to imported oil.

What we need in the national discussion are facts, for certain. But many of those remain buried in non-disclosure-sealed records and under the guise of “proprietary” information.

I’m all for this energy source as long as it’s safe for the people. However, industry has a long history of poorly regulating itself. There needs to be real regulation and before it’s too late. Natural gas is not the future, but it can be an important bridge fuel.

TOMASZ S. WILTOWSKI

DIRECTOR, COAL RESEARCH CENTER

PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING AND ENERGY PROCESSES

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY

Guidelines and monitoring needed

It is probably worth reviewing what hydraulic fracturing is as well as a little of its history as it has been commonly used for decades. Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) refers to the procedure of creating fractures in rocks and rock formations by typically injecting a mixture of mainly water and sand (in total about 99.5 percent of the total) into the rockmass. This can create new fractures or force existing fractures to open further. The extent and direction of the fracturing is largely influenced by the stresses at the injection point and the local rockmass properties and geology.

This method is used:

 In the natural gas and oil industry (the most common application).

 As a technique to determine the stress magnitude underground.

 To reduce the rockburst (seismicity) potential under generally deep hazardous mining conditions.

Generally the natural (undisturbed) gas bearing formation has low permeability, and fracking is the only technique that can economically improve the yield. The larger fractures created are then kept open by the sand particles and allow more oil and gas to flow out of the formation and into the well bore, from where it can be extracted. Hydraulic fracturing has resulted in many oil and gas wells becoming economic, because of the enhanced level of extraction that can be only be achieved after fracking.

The public would be forgiven for assuming that this is a new technology and process, however, fracking dates to the 1860s, but modern fracking only started in the mid 1940s. With technological advancements in the past 15 years, it has become a standard industry method to access natural gas in particular.

The potential problem is that the amount of fracking liquid (mainly water) that remains underground varies from 20 to 85 percent (Source: Earth Works Action). The fracking liquid needs a small amount of chemical additives to improve the performance of the hydraulic fracturing and make it economic.

The chemicals serve various functions in hydraulic fracturing:

 To limit the growth of bacteria to prevent corrosion of the well casing itself.

 To limit the later production of bacteria that could start to interfere with the fracture widths (bio-fouling).

 To reduce the effective viscosity of the fluid to improve the fracture growth potential.

 To reduce the friction during drilling and product production.

 Acids to remove drilling mud damage in the wellbore area.

While most industry analysts argue fracking is a safe and efficient way to tap this huge energy source, environmentalists and related community activists say it is a dangerous and destructive method, whose economic benefit is not worth the environmental damage.

To date, there appears to be no conclusive evidence that chemical-laden waste water from the process is contaminating ground water, but several environmental groups disagree.

There are, however, safeguards and best practices, such as double-lined pipes through water bearing strata that make it safe, in my opinion, and “environmentally friendly” chemicals can and should be used.

I, therefore, believe this process is safe and should be encouraged in Illinois, but appropriate guidelines and monitoring needs to be implemented to ensure this.

A.J.S. (SAM) SPEARING PHD PE

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AND INTERIM CHAIR DEPT OF MINING AND MINERAL RESOURCES ENGINEERING

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY

Springfield is writing rules —tell them what you want

Southern Illinois is on the brink of an energy boom. The New Albany shale play, extending from Carbondale to Indiana, has enough natural gas, retrievable only through hydraulic fracturing, to attract the interest of the largest gas companies. What should we think about this?

Rather than a ban, the Jackson County Board recently passed a temporary moratorium on fracking while Springfield works through comprehensive regulations. I applaud their good judgment. Every gold rush is bad for the environment, not because of the gold, but because of the rush.

In the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress deliberately omitted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and other fundamental environmental laws. It is currently unlikely that a paralyzed Congress will close these “Halliburton loopholes.” That makes regulation of fracking a state issue.

Springfield is now considering four bills that would regulate fracking in Illinois (read them at www.ilga.gov). These bills consider issues such as:

Trespass: Is it trespassing to drill horizontally under someone else’s land?

Liability: Does the gas company owe damages to a land owner whose well is contaminated?

Disclosure: Do gas companies have to tell the public what chemicals they use in fracking fluid?

Prior study: Do gas companies have to produce geologic maps of ground water before fracturing a shale play beneath it?

Waste water treatment: Do gas companies have to treat facing fluid and pumped water so it does not pose a risk to the environment?

My answers to these questions are: no, yes, yes, yes, yes. I think that resolution to the issues surrounding fracking will lead to a safe, profitable Southern Illinois natural gas industry for decades to come. Local politicians should find a way to direct a sliver of these profits to help fund our schools, which have received cut after cut in recent years.

What are your answers? Tell your state representatives and senators. It’s democracy time on fracking in Southern Illinois.

CHRISTOPHER LANT

PROFESSOR, GEOGRAPHY AND ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY

Copyright 2015 The Southern. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(24) Comments

  1. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 25, 2012 9:02 am
    You left out the part right after that where it said that leaks negate that benefit.
  2. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 25, 2012 9:01 am
    You quoted that greenhouse emissions would be lower, but then omitted the part right after it that they wouldn't be lower if gas leaks out of the wells, which has been reported elsewhere.
  3. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 25, 2012 8:59 am
    There are reasons, read the article. I don't want any more reasons popping up around where I live. No thanks, but hey if you tell the lawmakers about the starving people in 3rd world countries I'm sure they'll allow wholesale fracking...
  4. OLD JOE
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    OLD JOE - October 24, 2012 8:20 pm
    The news said gas in Mt Vernon was $3,65 a gallon. Here in Christopher it's $3,47 a gallon. I saw gas in Benton today gas at $3,46. It does sound like there is some price gouging in Mt Vernon.
  5. Ox Bird
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    Ox Bird - October 24, 2012 8:06 pm
    B1rdwatcher.........you say "So the gist of that spiel is that we have to frack in our own backyards or people in 3rd world countries will starve?"

    What my "spiel" is................is that there are many, many good reasons to drill for oil and gas in Southern Illinois using modern methods which include the use of hydro-frac...............and that there are, generally speaking, ZERO valid, empirically verifiable reasons against such practices.

    Your ideas and the ideas of all "Anti's" that I have encountered are centered on a belief structure that is, essentially, a false religious faith and a complete fraud.

    In order to have success in your efforts, you and the other S.A.F.E. folks are going to have to cook up some bigger and taller tales to tell...........so that you can do a better job of frightening people. For the sake of Southeastern Illinois, I hope that truth has the upper hand against your efforts.
  6. Ox Bird
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    Ox Bird - October 24, 2012 7:55 pm
    Yeah, Old Joe...........I filled up in Fairfield this last Monday morning for $3.13.9/gal.

    I believe that the reason for the super-low prices is a "gas price war" between existing stations and a newcomer station on the west side of town. Such a deal!!!
  7. MMike
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    MMike - October 24, 2012 6:31 pm
    b1rdwatcher,

    Do you have a counter argument or not? Everything has trade-offs, costs verses benefits. In some backyards the risks will outweigh the benefits but in others the risks, if properly managed, are going to be low. Now that is a big if. But the same if applies to coal mining. Do you have evidence that would show the risks are always high relative to the alternatives?
  8. MMike
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    MMike - October 24, 2012 6:25 pm
    So, you only care about what sells?
  9. OLD JOE
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    OLD JOE - October 24, 2012 6:23 pm
    Watching the channel 3 news, one story that caught my attention. Mt Vernon is still selling the good expensive gas. I guess I will have to drive to Mt Vernon tommorrow and get some of that good gas lol

    They said Mt Vernon gas is 50 cents higher per gallon than Fairfield.
  10. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 24, 2012 5:26 pm
    So the gist of that spiel is that we have to frack in our own backyards or people in 3rd world countries will starve?
  11. Ox Bird
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    Ox Bird - October 23, 2012 11:43 am
    OK b1rdwatcher......I will assume that you are likely aware that agricultural production in our world is largely dependent upon the use of fertilizers, fuels and lubricants produced by and/or with oil and natural gas.........the production of which has universally involved hydraulic fracturing for over 50 years.

    Since you surely must grasp the concept that if you reduce the supply of a necessary product of any sort while demand remains constant or at some higher level.....the price of that product will increase.

    I will assume that you also grasp the idea that if producers of agricultural products (AKA food) are forced to pay higher costs for inputs used to produce crops (fuel, fertilizers, etc.), either prices will increase to enable these producers to continue maximum production.......or.......they will adjust their practices to compensate for market forces in order to remain solvent and profitable....to whatever extent is possible.

    To advocate successfully in favor of actions that will have the effect of increasing the price of natural gas and oil will have the obvious result.........prices of all products that involve gas/oil will increase.

    In the case of agriculture, prices of commercial fertilizers will be higher......if that which you and the other "anti's" are advocating actually has influence over our society. Less extensive application of fertilizers (a much more restrictive point of diminishing return) and fewer acres of marginally productive ground planted will be the result.

    We are fortunate enough in the United States that we probably wouldn't witness the starvation that would result from this. As far as food is concerned, the impact of your ideas would be felt in the Third World.....mostly in Central and East Africa. The suffering of higher food prices is always felt....most of all....by these peoples.

    What are your feelings about the whole idea of genocide? You should think about the consequences of what you and the other local "S.A.F.E." believers are promoting..........because there is no doubt that the net effect of what you are advocating will be death to people who are innocent and have done you no harm.
  12. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 22, 2012 11:14 pm
    It's always this flawed logic with you. According to it, no one who drives a car can argue for any other form of transportation. And whatever has been done in the past is justification for any and everything in the future.
  13. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 22, 2012 11:07 pm
    Because benefits to the environment don't really seem to be a selling point for fracking.
  14. boone76
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    boone76 - October 21, 2012 10:02 pm
    OK......my last comment did not come out right at all but it was close enough to make my point.

    My position at this time is that I'm not necessarily against fracking. There is a right/responsible way to do it and a ram it through wrong way. If we are seriously discussing a massive expansion of the process then we need to figure out what to do long term with the tremendous amount of waste it produces. People that dismiss the waste issue do not understand how nasty this stuff is.
  15. MMike
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    MMike - October 21, 2012 10:02 pm
    I listed several. But you ignore that. Why?
  16. boone76
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    boone76 - October 21, 2012 9:46 pm
    You don't give a crap about anyone but myself......how precious.
  17. alegator
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    alegator - October 21, 2012 7:34 pm
    Good God. We've been fracking in southeastern Illinois for years. Don't you think the two-headed children would have turned up by NOW?!?

    When it comes to energy policy, here are the only three things that matter: Keep the lights, keep my house heated/air conditioned and keep gas in my car. I could really give a crap less what comes after I'm gone.

    Sorry, future generations. That's how evolution happens. Figure out a different way. For me, FRACK NOW.
  18. Matagorda
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    Matagorda - October 21, 2012 4:58 pm
    A group including Texas A&M University, Sam Houston State University, Utah State University, Ohio State University, West Virginia University and the University of Colorado is indeed doing the research that most of the speakers are asking for. A quick search on Google for environmentally friendly drilling or best management practices for fracturing returns several sites of interest
    http://www.colorado.edu/law/centers/nrlc/library/Publications/Articles/Mutz%20-%20article%20in%20E&P%20(4-12-10).pdf is one example I think people who say we need more research haven't looked for themselves for what is already being done.
  19. Ox Bird
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    Ox Bird - October 21, 2012 3:15 pm
    The truth is that b1rdwatcher and each and every one of the "anti-frackers" use products every day that depend on modern drilling technologies.

    They live in houses with vinyl siding.....they use motor fuels every day......they enjoy warm buildings heated by natural gas and they use electricity to cool themselves that is produced by natural gas. They also enjoy foods that are products of modern agriculture which are provided thanks to fertilizers produced with natural gas. The planting, cultivation and harvest of these same foods depend on petroleum-derived fuels and lubricants. Opponents of hydraulic fracturing are acting to reduce the availability and affordability of food and energy for everyone. People will die in certain impoverished areas of our world because of their activities, if they see the success that they seek.

    I recently saw a video of a bunch of these "anti's" marching around in "Hazmat Suits" made out of Tyvek. Apparently, these people didn't realize that Tyvek is made of polyethylene, which is itself a product of petroleum....obtained through the use of modern drilling techniques, including hydraulic fracturing. Hypocrites? I do think so.

    As citizens of Southern Illinois, we must stand against the ideas that this small group of people are advocating. They are attempting to scare people with groundless claims. By doing allowing their ideas to rule over us, we stand the risk of not seeing timely development of resources which stand a chance to provide employment to our people......and improvements in living standards for millions. For those who lack food resources, the question of timely development is much more crucial.....because it is a question of survival for these folks.
  20. MH_2012
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    MH_2012 - October 21, 2012 12:25 pm
    I used to drill oil wells in Illinois and was raised in southern Illinois. You all know that we are not going to drill there anymore because of the Governors singular insistence on reviewing each new permit in Illinois. In addition, a tax of 10% on the profits is in acted....so there is no incentive to drill there. Too bad, because other states like Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Michigan are reaping the benefits....we in other states are getting rich, I can attest to that fact. Good luck Illinoisians! You need it.
  21. MMike
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    MMike - October 21, 2012 10:36 am
    "...one of the [potential] benefits of natural gas is its reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as compared to other fossil fuels."

    I would add:

    The overall local environment impacts of fracking are likely less than the impacts of coal mining. Also burning natural gas does not release mercury, SO2 or particulate matter (soot). Modern coal plants can greatly reduce these emissions but at a larger cost. Natural gas power plants use about half as much water for cooling as coal burning plants.

  22. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 21, 2012 10:31 am
    How else would I quote from the article, ESP? Seriously, why should we allow fracking here? No one has listed one real benefit to the people of Southern Illinois. All they do is downplay the environmental hazards and insult people with good sense. And for what???
  23. retiredchief
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    retiredchief - October 21, 2012 10:08 am
    Very good article. I agree with the SI experts that more study is needed. We can start in places where this process has been used for 40 years, they should have some insight into the environmental impacts by now. Did the birdwatcher actually read the article or was he using predetermined bird brained propaganda?
  24. b1rdwatcher
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    b1rdwatcher - October 21, 2012 9:56 am
    These people list all these reasons NOT to frack, without any good reasons for it, then say we should frack. One guy called this a gold rush, are you frickin' kidding me? How many people do you think will get rich from this, or even stand to gain anything? Do you think the price of natural gas will go down? You don't really see any of those good reasons do you? Just bad ones, but hey according to these guys we have to do it and it's a gold rush. Give me a break, don't allow people to trash your planet for their personal gain.
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