Make no mistake: I am NOT an expert at hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as it is commonly known. I am simply an environmental consultant who runs a small environmental technology firm that, over its 20 years of existence, has conducted hundreds of environmental assessments.
So why this topic? There are probably hundreds of people like me out there who work as environmental consultants and scientists on typical assessment and remediation projects involving petroleum hydrocarbon releases; Brownfields sites; dense, non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs); underground storage tanks (USTs); and the like that know just a little bit about fracking but not enough to really know anything substantial about it, or how to get involved. Fracking is becoming more and more important every day, so it’s time to dive in and learn something new.
What Is Fracking?
From Wikipedia: Hydraulic fracturing is the propagation of fractures in a rock layer caused by the presence of a pressurized fluid. Hydraulic fractures form naturally, as in the case of veins or dikes, and is one means by which gas and petroleum from source rocks may migrate to reservoir rocks. This process is used to release petroleum; natural gas (including shale gas, tight gas and coal seam gas); or other substances for extraction via a technique called induced hydraulic fracturing, often shortened to fracking or hydrofracking.
In plain English, fracking is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside. 60 Minutes, the popular television show, had a pretty good segment about fracking in November 2010, which can be found here: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7054210n
The Bad Stuff
Earthquakes, fire from your water faucet, toxic chemical infiltration into important aquifers, and a massive use of water resources are just some of the more well-known issues with fracking. Since most exploration companies don’t even disclose the chemicals used in their fracking process, it’s difficult to know what short-term, and more importantly, what long-term effects fracking will have on our precious water resources. Also, regulatory frameworks governing fracking activities are still in their infancy and seem to be driven more by the oil & gas industry rather than by the environmental consulting industry.
The Good Stuff
True energy independence is a real possibility with shale gas exploration. Shale gas reserves in the US are larger than in any other country in the world. Reserves in the US have been estimated at a 100-year supply, and these estimates continue to grow as new discoveries are made; as new extraction technologies are further refined; and as our nation becomes more energy-efficient through the use of conservation efforts, more efficient vehicles, the use of smart-grid technology, and a larger mix of alternative green energies such as solar and wind. Today we are less dependent on imported oil than we have been since 1996. If shale gas extraction continues to grow as it has been, our nation has a real chance of becoming energy independent in 10 years.
Imagine True Energy Independence in 10 Years…
Fewer US lives and treasure spent on battles and wars in the Middle East. If our nation becomes completely energy independent, would we really be eager to go to war in the Middle East for what amounts to a war for oil stability? Probably not so much. Not having to police the world would equate to huge military savings. Currently, we spend about 20% of our annual budget on defense. In 2010, that was $690B. Imagine if we could shave this down to 15% of our budget, or even 10% of our budget. Less money spent on policing the world would mean less distraction, and more money to apply against our debt or other things that matter to us.
More cars and trucks on the road powered by electricity and compressed natural gas (CNG). Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of FedEx, said it himself a few days ago on NPR. FedEx is betting on electric and hybrid vehicles to deliver packages. According to him, his delivery trucks will operate on 75% less per-mile costs than internal combustion engines. That’s not a typo: 75% less. For FedEx, that alone is a game-changer. That will translate to less expensive package delivery to millions, more profit for FedEx, or both. Fred Smith believes that his company will achieve this because of improving battery technology and charging during off-peak hours. And when Fred speaks, people listen, because he can make things happen.
When I was a kid living in Venezuela in the 1970s, my dad had a Ford F100 company pickup truck that he would use every day to get to work and to take us on fun excursions exploring all sorts of cool places in the State of Anzoategui, Venezuela. In the bed of the truck, there was a large horizontal cylinder covering the entire front of the bed that contained liquified petroleum gas, or LPG. This extra tank was used for emergencies, whenever dad was driving in the middle of nowhere with no gasoline stations around. When the truck’s gasoline fuel tank was near empty, dad would flip a switch on the dashboard, and presto! We were now running on LPG. Note that this was something available in a 3rd world country in the 1970s. Surely our internal combustion engines and fuel tanks can be modified quickly and cheaply to run on CNG.
Fewer gasoline USTs and UST-related contamination. Imagine a world where USTs containing gasoline are a rarity. As environmental consultants, we all know that the best way to mitigate environmental contamination first is to remove the source of the contamination. If most vehicles are powered by electricity and CNG, this would result in substantially fewer petroleum hydrocarbon releases, thus eliminating the vast majority of future leaking UST (LUST) sites and a portion of the more than $200M that the EPA alone spends managing LUST sites today.
My Take On Fracking
In my opinion, fracking is here to stay. The stakes are too high for it to simply go away. So rather than fight it, I’m going to do my part by learning more about it and figuring out how to play a positive role in it. I happen to believe that environmental consultants and scientists are still relevant and should shape the fracking industry. So rather than categorically saying “no” to fracking or simply ignoring it, my take is that environmental consultants and scientists like me should use their vast knowledge and lessons learned over the last 30 years to create adequate, consistent, Federal and State regulatory programs and policies governing fracking and establish best practices for the industry. The industry needs to also do its part and disclose what chemicals they use in their fracking fluids, the quantities used, and their concentrations.
Fracking activities will no doubt cause environmental problems, just like gasoline USTs inevitably cause problems even today. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do it. After all, every single energy source has its own set of issues. But the difference with shale gas is that this time, it’s ours, and in game-changing quantities.
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