There are many things that make natural gas attractive in comparison to other energy sources. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) delivers affordable domestically produced energy and helps create millions of jobs at a time when high unemployment rates are still a major concern. (Score one for Team Fracktastic.)
So what’s the problem?
Despite its obvious benefits, many environmental groups are quick to point out the potential risks associated with fracking.
Among the various concerns are the amount of freshwater used and the wastewater associated with shale gas extraction, which can contain high levels of total dissolved solids, fracturing fluid additives, metals and naturally occurring radioactive materials. Wastewater disposal methods, including underground injection or transportation to wastewater treatment plants also have raised and furrowed environmental brows. (Score one for Team Frackenstein.)
Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a study to better understand potential impacts of fracking on drinking water resources, and to identify the driving factors that may affect the severity and frequency of such impacts. According to EPA, the scope of the research includes the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing, and a draft report is expected to be released for public comment and peer review in 2014.
In the meantime, regulation of hydraulic fracturing remains the responsibility of the states. Inarguably, the states have a vested interest in the protection of groundwater and take into consideration the specifics of the geology and hydrology within their boundaries. As the U.S. follows the track to become the world’s largest oil producer and a net exporter of natural gas, however, some budget-strapped states may be reluctant to adequately regulate the stream delivering millions of jobs and dollars.
The lack of long-term risk studies also should not be disregarded. A recent U.S. Department of Energy study on fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation found that fracking chemicals did not cause groundwater pollution. The study pointed out, however, that these were preliminary results based on just a year of aquifer monitoring.
As evidenced by the headline of this editorial, I might have been under the influence of a Halloween candy overdose when I set out to write this column, but the fact of the matter is that hydraulic fracturing is a hotly debated issue with various arguments both for and against natural gas extractions. As we wait for teams Fracktastic and Frackenstein to settle the score, it is clear that the shale gas revolution will continue its march to new jobs and a more energy-secure future. That said, more research and better state regulations (perhaps under federal guidance) are needed to address long-term environmental concerns.