The United States is home to what some estimate to be the largest known shale gas reserves in the world. Often referred to as the “bridge fuel” that, according to the oil and gas industry, will aid in the country’s energy transition from coal to renewable sources like wind and solar, natural gas now fuels nearly 40 percent of the country’s electricity generation. Natural gas use has soared in recent years, but so too has the controversy surrounding the environmental, public health and social impacts of how the fuel is obtained.
The Marcellus Shale formation, located in the Northeast U.S., is of particular interest to the oil and gas industry, not just because of its large, untapped reserve, but because of its proximity to major population centers. That proximity, however, also raises significant public health concerns. Of primary concern is the potentially damaging impact of natural gas drilling on water resources. A new process conducted by drilling companies has the potential to increase pollution exposure, and concerned members of the public, some state and federal regulators and the environmental community are keeping a close watch on the process.
The method combines a new form of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing – more commonly known as fracking The process blasts open fissures in underground shale-rock formations by injecting a high pressure combination of fluids, chemicals and proppants causing the fossil fuel to flow to the production well. During the fracking process, millions of gallons of fracking fluid – a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals – are injected into the ground to break up the shale and release natural gas. While each company’s formula is a closely guarded secret, in some cases the mix includes known carcinogens.
Some of the fracking fluid remains underground where it could potentially contaminate groundwater in the future, but much of it is brought back to the surface as wastewater. That wastewater contains fracking chemicals as well as naturally occurring radioactive materials and metals found in the surrounding soil. The wastewater is often pumped into holding ponds where it can leak and settle into surrounding groundwater, and impact wildlife. The contamination of groundwater is of major concern for those who live near drilling operations and rely on drinking water wells. And the contamination of watersheds that provide drinking water for millions of people in cities hundreds of miles away from any natural gas drills poses a significant threat as well.
While the natural gas industry argues that fracking will create new jobs, the potential harm to water resources could endanger existing economies. Most proposed gas drilling projects are located in rural areas where a ready supply of fresh water is essential to agriculture, tourism, sport fishing, hunting and manufacturing. Drilling accidents, which can and do happen, can have a profound impact on these industries, and the boom-bust cycle of energy extraction can irreparably change the way of life in rural communities. For a cautionary tale, just look to mountaintop removal mining for coal and the devastation caused to Appalachia’s ecology and public health.
Federal and state responses to the threats to water resources posed by fracking have been mixed at best. At the federal level, regulation is insufficient due to certain explicit exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act granted by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The EPA is just now starting multi-year research into the impacts of fracking on water resources, and while preliminary results will be available in 2012, the final report is not expected until 2014.
At the state level the picture is mixed. New Jersey’s legislature, for example, has approved an outright ban on fracking (pending the Governor’s signature), while New York is proposing to ban the practice from certain sensitive areas. Pennsylvania has already received billions of dollars in natural gas drilling investment, making tougher regulations a difficult sell. In all states, however, proper enforcement of any regulations on this rapidly expanding industry will be difficult for overburdened, underfunded and underprepared environmental agencies.
The role that natural gas fracking will play in the United States' energy future is quickly evolving. The nation is shifting towards electricity generated by natural gas – over the past ten years 81 percent of new electricity capacity has been gas-fired – and state governments are playing regulatory catch-up with the drilling technology’s rapid expansion to meet this burgeoning demand. As states debate how best to protect air and water resources from any potential fracking side effects, the federal government is taking another look at its own imperfect research and oversight. New technologies like “micro-LNG,” which allow production of natural gas for markets without pipeline networks, add to the need for regulators to get a firm grasp on the changing natural gas landscape. Please check this page often as we will update with the latest fracking news and research.