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.
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.
PROFESSOR, GEOGRAPHY AND ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCES
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY