Fracking's Top 10

Benjamin H. Grumbles

It is time once again to wade into the deep and murky waters of shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). A lot has happened since my “Drill, Maybe Drill” column from May 2011, yet some of the same factual, scientific, legal and policy questions continue to surface. Here is my list of the latest and greatest top 10 questions, locally and globally, for players and pundits in the U.S. market:

10. Is shale gas a revolutionary transition fuel to a cleaner, cheaper, more secure energy future or a destructive diversionary tactic away from renewables, nationally and globally? (President Obama says it’s a “bridge fuel,” but how long is the bridge? Where will the U.S. draw the line on the right balance of exports versus cheaper gas and manufactured goods at home, in the era of global climate change?)

9. What’s with the flaming faucet water? (Are the private wells contaminated by naturally occurring methane or by drilling and/or fracking that caused methane migration?)

8. Can fracking be done safely and without polluting underground drinking water? (How do current findings and studies on water quality line up with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy reports to date? Do the thousands of feet of rock and decades of experience with fracking provide an ample layer of protection against aquifer contamination?)

7. Why aren’t fracking fluid contents kinder, gentler and more fully disclosed to the public? (Can green chemistry and dry fracking save the day? Is there a difference between a community’s right to know and a competitor’s right to know? Is Fracfocus.org the solution?)

6. Why is so much freshwater used in the fracking process? (Is the standard number of 3 to 5 million gal of water per well going down? Are monitoring requirements and legal access and use restrictions reducing regional freshwater footprints?)

5Can wastewater (flowback and produced water) be recycled, managed and/or disposed of safely and affordably? (What’s the risk to surface water compared to groundwater? How serious is the trend toward onsite recycling and reuse, and is it cheaper to send the waste offsite to treatment plants or disposal wells?)

4. Does fracking cause earthquakes? (Are recent earthquakes in shale plays traceable to underground injection and disposal of fracking wastewater? What’s being done to prevent waste injection problems and to understand seismic risk in the context of fracking?)

3. Beyond water, what are the environmental and public health impacts of fracking and related infrastructure in a given area? (How do the individual and cumulative impacts of air pollution, truck traffic, habitat fragmentation, and frack sand mining stack up?)

2. Can state and local agencies adequately regulate the practice without federal support, guidance, standards or intrusion?  (What does “cooperative federalism” look like in the fracking world? When and how should federal agencies step in? Note to reader: This is the No. 1 question in policy arenas and political theaters.)

And the No. 1 question I present to you in this column:

Can Matt Damon, Yoko Ono and Lady Gaga all be wrong?

Apologies to all, including Damon, Ono and Gaga fans. The questions above are legitimate.  The concerns are real, but so are the solutions, even though they get caught up at times in dangerous undercurrents in the deep and murky waters of shale gas and hydraulic fracturing.

What are your top 10 questions?