The Dangers of Drilling for Natural Gas in your backyard

If I had to choose my favorite fossil fuel, it would be natural gas because of its clean burning properties.  When burned in power stations it makes up about 24% of the U.S. electricity grid.  In my home, we cook with it and heat our home and water with it (way more efficiently than if we had to use electricity from the local coal plant too)!  I recently finished a post on using natural gas to power your car.  For all of these reasons, I was excited when Time Magazine's featured article at the end of March was on extracting natural gas from shale in the U.S, particularly at the Marcellus shale which runs right through Pennsylvania and New York.  The Time piece is one of the best I've seen on how natural gas fracking affects residents of a community. I've excerpted some of my favorite sections of the article below, but I highly encourage you to read it.

  • In the U.S., the gas industry is exempt from many federal regulations, leaving most oversight to state governments that have sometimes been hard-pressed to keep up with the rapid growth of drilling. The investigative news site ProPublica has found over 1,000 reports of water contamination near drilling sites. New York State — spurred by fears about the possible impact of the industry on New York City's watershed — has put hydraulic fracturing on hold for further study, while some members of Congress are looking to tighten regulation of drilling. "We were not ready for this," says John Quigley, former head of Pennsylvania's department of conservation and natural resources. "We weren't ready for the technology or the scale or the pace."
  • But when their cows last summer ended up drinking from a suspected leak in a drilling wastewater pond —slurping up water contaminated with the radioactive element strontium — that was too much.
  • The drillers then shoot millions of gallons (Mapawatt Note: As much as 5 million gallons) of highly pressurized water, mixed with sand and small amounts of additives known as fracking chemicals, down the well, widening the shale fractures.
  • Even though fracking chemicals make up only perhaps 0.5% of the overall drilling fluid, in a 5 million–gal. (19 million L) job, that would still amount to some 25,000 gal. (95,000 L). It's not always clear what those chemicals are, because the industry isn't required to release the precise makeup of its fracking formulas — and drilling-service companies like Halliburton have been reluctant to reveal the information. (It's not for nothing that a provision in the 2005 energy bill that prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating hydraulic fracturing has been nicknamed the Halliburton loophole.)
  • Of greater concern is what may be happening closer to the surface. Wells need to be properly cemented to prevent any gas or fluid from escaping before it's collected. Cementing is one of the trickiest parts of drilling — a bad cement job helped lead to the Deepwater Horizon blowout last year — and it can and does fail over time. That seems to be what happened in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock, where the state government has said poor cementing around well casings by the drilling company Cabot allowed methane to contaminate the water wells of 19 families.
  • Even if everything goes right, hydraulic fracturing can produce over 1 million gal. (3.8 million L) of toxic, briny wastewater over the lifetime of an individual well. In western states like Texas, companies can store the wastewater in deep underground control wells, but Pennsylvania's geology makes that difficult. As a result, drillers have had to ship much of their wastewater to municipal treatment plants —and as a recent New York Times investigation showed, those plants are often incapable of screening all drilling-waste contaminants.
  • It's important to cast the environmental controversies surrounding shale drilling against the backdrop of the fossil fuel that, if all goes well, gas should help displace: coal. From mountaintop-removal mining to its impact on climate change, cheap coal is toxic to the human race. Thousands die in coal mines annually around the world; in the U.S. alone, air pollution from coal combustion leads to thousands of premature deaths a year. Natural gas power plants, by contrast, emit far fewer air pollutants. Natural gas's benefit over coal when it comes to climate change is less clear-cut, but it's there, and gas can also coexist with renewable energy, providing inexpensive backup for wind and solar.

I mentioned the biggest danger when using fracking to extract natural gas from shale in our post, "The Dirty Truth behind Fossil Fuel Production".  When discussing the fossil fuel  industry's less than stellar environmental record (it was a few weeks after the BP Gulf Oil Spill) and their pursuit of profits at the expense of the public's safety:

I understand that we need energy.  I understand that we can’t currently meet our energy demand through renewable energy.  But when our society signed a contract with the fossil fuel industry, I don’t think that we meant to sign away our freedom, our health, and our environment.  Sure, everyone wants something for the least amount of money as possible. But I don’t think anyone wants to cheapen the American way of life for the purpose of a little lower cost fossil fuel.  We need fossil fuel to run our current economy, but we don’t need to whore out our environment and well-being so a few “suits” in the energy industry can line their pockets a little more.

Also covering natural gas fracking recently is the probably the best (and only) television and journalist site covering energy, energyNOW! Their feature, Pennsylvania - Fracking's Epicenter opened with a round table discussion with experts in the field.  A 4-minute video of this discussion is the first video seen at the bottom of the post.  I appreciate energyNOW!'s journalistic integrity by opening the discussion with:

Now, before we begin, a note about "energyNOW!" Our initial support comes from the American Clean Skies Foundation, which is funded, in part, by Chesapeake Energy, a major player in the shale gas business. We are editorially independent. Neither the foundation nor its backers control what we say and do on this program. We strive to report on energy and the environment accurately and fairly, with no agenda, other than informing the public, you, about critical issues that affect us all.

A great summary of the issues surrounding the increased frequency of natural gas fracking came during the round table debate from Peter Gleick, the president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, which looks at the connections between water and human health:

I think the problem is, a lot of different balls have been dropped here. We're racing ahead with fracking because we want to expand our natural gas production. Burning natural gas is better than burning coal overall, or better than importing oil from the Middle East, but as we've raced ahead, our regulations, our oversight, our monitoring, our enforcement of existing laws have not kept up.

And later in the post another panel member, John Quigley, the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources who issued leases to gas companies, presented a solution I agree with:

I think here's the real bottom line, in my opinion, when it comes to public health and this water question. We've got to test. The industry must be held to the highest possible standard. The industry should be expected to recycle 100% of their water across the board, every company, every well. We're not there yet, and that's where all states need to go. And this water needs to be tested both at the discharge point at the treatment facilities and the intake points of water consumption, water processing facilities.

In case you're worried that increased environmental requirements for natural gas fracking will hurt natural gas companies' profits, one of the largest natural gas companies(and one that is partly responsible for energyNOW!'s funding), Chesapeake Energy rewarded their CEO Aubrey McClendon with $112 MILLION dollars in 2008.  You remember 2008 right?  It was the year when the rest of the U.S. began suffering from the economic downturn (and Chesapeake's stock lost 60% the year he was awarded the bonus). As I said earlier, our current economy needs fossil fuels and natural gas is the cleanest burning one we've got, but don't let the fossil fuel industry hijack the environment and your health for the sake of their profits. --------------------

Here's a nice intro to fracking from Liz Nelson from She is a freelance writer and blogger from Houston. Questions and comments can be sent to: liznelson17 @


1. What is natural gas fracking?
Fracking is a mining technique first conceived in 1947. In 1949 it became commercially viable, and by 2010, 60% of new gas and oil wells around the world were being fracked, or hydrofractured.
The technique is performed through a mixture of sand, chemicals and water injected at high force into a wellbore. When this happens, small fractures in the bore occur, hence the name, 'fracking' or fracturing. 
This procedure is only performed once in the life of a particular well bore, but it enhances the availability of natural gas and other fluids dramatically, greatly simplifying their removal and the productivity of the well.

2. How does fracking affect the environment?
Fracking has come under close scrutiny due to concerns about ground water contamination from the highly-pressured chemicals used to forcefully frack, or fracture rock and extract the natural gas. Concerns are also put forth about flow-back and spills of gas and other extractions.

Water from the fracking efforts is stored in surface ponds, and documented contamination has been reported in ponds that have not been lined properly to avoid seepage. In fact, the United Kingdom has imposed bans on fracking techniques. However, due to increased demand for gas and oil, the bans have been lifted and the government there has chosen to focus on more regulations instead of complete prohibitions.

Only 30-percent to 50-percent of the water used in fracking is retrieved during the process. As some wells require anywhere from one to eight million gallons of water, this means a great deal of water is lost for each fracking process.

Many chemicals are used in the process of fracking for gas. As some of these chemicals are proprietary, they are not available for public knowledge. However, as much as 40,000 gallons of worth of chemicals are utilized in the process. Because of these great infusion of chemicals into the ground, methane levels of ground water can be up to 17 times greater than other locales.

3. Why use fracking for natural gas?
Huge amounts of hydrocarbons were once considered unavailable for use. Hydrocarbons are components of crude oil, which is based on once-living energy, such as compressed plant life. A vast amount of carbon and energy can now be released from these hydrocarbons. Those in favor of fracking for natural gas point to the economic benefit to countries based on the availability of this vital energy through fracking.

4. How does the fracking technique affect other types of extraction endeavors?
Hydraulic fracturing increases rates at which certain desired fluids can be extracted from deep in the earth. All of these deep fluids were once considered inaccessible. At this time, water, a vital necessity, can be extracted for use at depths formerly unavailable. The yield of water has been increased in the US, Australia and South Africa through fracking.

As much of 30-percent of natural gas in the United States is derived from fracking. By 2035, it is believed by the Energy Information Administration that this number will rise up to 45-percent. In the near future, 60-percent to 80-percent of new wells will be fracked in order to promote continued productivity.

5. How will the fracking of natural gas influence the price of the gas?
More availability of natural gas due to fracking has, of course, brought lower gas prices. However, price to the residential consumer is based not only of the availability of the gas to the electrical generators but other factors as well. Costs may involve repairs of electric lines, interruptions of weather, storage of the gas supply to the generators, and the ability to distribute the gas to areas of need. Gas piping infrastructure is expensive to build and to maintain. All of these costs will be passed on in some capacity to consumers.

Fracking of natural gas is a controversial issue whose argument is not about to die any time soon. Environmental concerns must be addressed, as well as the availability of vital fuels that this procedure provides. In considering prices for household needs, cost factors such as storage and transport of the gas need to be understood. 


From energyNOW!: In part one of this two part debate, energyNOW! anchor Thalia Assuras talks with four experts to drill into shale gas exploration, the science behind how liquids might escape to water supplies, and how Pennsylvania’s state government views the promise and perils of fracking.Part 2:Also from energyNOW! is a great debate between members of the U.S. Congress who are on very different sides of the issue:

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Great blog! I agree that NG is the preferred choice over coal and oil. However, I do have major concerns about fracking. That sinful omission from the 2005 energy bill needs to be corrected and national standards have to be followed, especially with the influx of conservative governors who think regulation is a dirty word. Mr. Quigley's position is the correct one. Water must be tested during several stages of production. The fact that voluminous amounts of water are necessary for this process is the ultimate Achilles Heel of fracking. With the increased pressure on potable sources to meet global drinking and irrigation needs, it will get harder to justify its use in energy production.

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