Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fracking and its environmental consequences

Fracking--the extraction of natural gas from beneath the earth's surface--has been very much in the news in recent days. Indeed, it's been on the minds of we law and rural livelihoods folks for some time. A student wrote about it here in the fall of 2009.

This week, Ian Urbina did a two-part series on its environmental consequences in the New York Times. The first was headlined, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers," and in it Urbina describes why hydrofracking has become more widespread in recent years and how it works:

The gas has always been there, of course, trapped deep underground in countless tiny bubbles, like frozen spills of seltzer water between thin layers of shale rock. But drilling companies have only in recent years developed techniques to unlock the enormous reserves, thought to be enough to supply the country with gas for heating buildings, generating electricity and powering vehicles for up to a hundred years.

* * *

But the relatively new drilling method — known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking — carries significant environmental risks. It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock formations and release the gas.

The second story, "Pressure Limits Efforts to Police Drilling for Gas," reports on the lax federal regulation of oil and gas waste, dating back to the 1980s. That lax regulation has carried over to this era of increased natural gas extraction, and it results in a double standard among industries. Urbina illustrates his point:
Coal mine operators that want to inject toxic wastewater into the ground must get permission from the federal authorities. But when natural gas companies want to inject chemical-laced water and sand into the ground during hydrofracking, they do not have to follow the same rules.
Both of Urbina's stories note concerns about the impact of the fracking waste on water supplies--especially city water supplies.

In addition to these environmental and water waste disposal issues, concerns about geological stability have also arisen in relation to hydrofracking. Going back a month or so, the New York Times has given quite a bit coverage to an "earthquake swarm" in north central Arkansas, near a place named Guy, population 557. The Times published this story back in early February. The headline speaks the proverbial volumes about the insignificance of rural places--until things start to go clearly awry there (especially when the things going awry might have an impact on urban places--that is, diminish energy supplies): "A Dot on the Map, Until the Earth Started Shaking." In it, Campbell Brown reports on the thousands of earthquakes--all of them quite small--that have struck the Guy area since early fall, 2010. Brown observes that the Guy "earthquake storm" has been "followed by the Guy media swarm, with reporters pouring in through the surrounding orchards and cow pastures to ask residents what the quakes feel like." Brown observed in the early February story that the "only documented damage is a cracked window in the snack bar at Woolly Hollow State Park."

But that was as of a month ago. On March 1, a larger quake struck Guy, one measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale. It was the largest quake in Arkansas in 35 years. (Bear in mind that the New Madrid fault runs through northeast Arkansas, but not near Guy).

Turns out, hydrofracking may be the cause of the quakes. The rush to drill for natural gas in the so-called Fayetteville shale--which encompasses the Guy area--intensified a few years ago. Now, because of this latest quake, the State Oil & Gas Commission yesterday asked the companies doing the drilling to close the wells used for the wastewater byproduct of the fracking.

I'm especially keen to know if good science will ultimately establish a link between the quakes and the hydrofracking. (An apparently related story out of California is here; another quake was recently recorded nearby). As for the consequences of fracking waste in our water supply and other environmental harms, I can only hope that the federal government steps up to the plate soon with appropriate regulation.


RH said...

I have my fingers crossed that the EPA will fight Congress and make sure that their reports include all the relevant science about hydrofracking. It seems like the pressure, especially from the two Oklahoma senators, is another example of political opportunism. It is similar to Governor Walker's efforts in Wisconsin to take advantage of the financial crisis by pushing through his anti-union policies despite the fact that the teachers have already made concessions. Here, it looks like they're hoping high oil prices will cause us to look the other way so we can extract the natural gas.

Jen Wickens said...

I admit to knowing next to nothing about resource extraction and fracking in particular. So a month or so ago when I watched a segment featuring T. Boone Pickens on The Daily Show, one of the only television shows I watch, I was curious to know why fracking caught such a bad rap.

Here's a link to the extended interview:

But then after reading this post and the related articles, I can't help but think that T. Boone Pickens is crazy. Thank you for educating me!

Anonymous said...

Do you really think the EPA will fight Congress? Their hands are tied. The problem lies in the loophole of the energy bill of 2005 set up by Cheney and EPA can do nothing about it. Watch "Gaslands." EPA has known about it for years and what have they really done? There is no regulation on private property and use of leases on private property.