By Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Instructor
Considering the benefits outlined in The Natural Gas Fracking Debate: What Is Fracking and Why Does It Matter? Part I, fracking sounds great. It gives access to a clean domestic energy source that works well in conjunction with renewables. But there is a catch. As fracking has been used more, it is apparent that there are potential environmental impacts. These include:
- Disposal of fracking fluids: Anywhere from 15 to 80% of the fracking fluids are returned to the surface and must be disposed of. The fluids include chemical additives that are used to improve the fracking process and may also include additional substances absorbed from the underground formation. Until recently, the production industry has been reluctant to reveal what chemicals are in the fracking fluids, which must be disposed of in a safe manner. In a few limited cases, humans appear to have had severe reactions after coming in contact with fracking fluids.
- Migration of fracking fluids and/or natural gas into water supplies: While the production industry claims that fracking fluids and produced natural gas cannot leak into water supplies because fracking is performed at much lower depths than the water tables, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that, either through improper drilling techniques or through other causes, cases of ground water pollution have occurred in limited incidents.
- Leaks of greenhouse gases: At least one study has suggested that the fracking process can result in significant release of methane during the development process. Methane is a significant greenhouse gas.
Can These Issues be Resolved?
So, can these issues be resolved and safe production occur? It’s the million dollar question. Most within the gas industry believe the answer is yes, but the industry must convince the public and regulators. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently performing a comprehensive study with results expected by 2012 (see http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/class2/hydraulicfracturing/index.cfm). France has banned fracking until studies are complete. On a domestic front, New Jersey has halted all fracking until more research is done, and many other U.S. states are grappling with the question of how to regulate fracking. And it is possible that the EPA study may lead to federal regulations on fracking.
Worst-case scenario? The public and policy makers decide that fracking is unsafe and suddenly natural gas supplies are very tight, which will result in major gas price increases. A best-case scenario is that the production industry works closely with scientists, regulators and the public to develop and implement safe techniques that allow for exploitation of huge gas resources. It remains to be seen whether the outcome is worst-case, best-case or somewhere in between.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is also looking into safety issues related to developing shale gas. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he sees evidence that “bad things have happened,” including water pollution where fracking fluids and natural gas have appeared in drinking water supply.
“The question is, what is the cause of that, and how can they be prevented and mitigated,” Chu said. “Science will give us better ways of monitoring what is going on.”
A sub-panel of scientists set up by the DOE to come up with recommendations released a report on August 11 . It suggests that impacts of fracking are manageable, but it also presented a number of recommendations on how fracking could be made safer.