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Friday, August 17, 2012

It's Time to Get Fracking!

I have been mostly ambivalent about fracking an the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus shale deposit. But the news that US CO2 emissions have fallen to 1992 levels almost entirely because of energy producers shifting away from coal and instead using natural gas has won me over. To have fallen to 1992 levels of CO2 with no regulation, no caps, no carbon tax, and no increased prices to consumers is just incredible. Imagine the impact if we converted more cars into natural gas vehicles?

I've researched this issue and I've taught this. I understand quite well the arguments put forward by environmentalists. I understand their concern about contamination of the water by the chemicals used in the fracking process. But ground water contamination from fracking is rare. In fact there is one documented place where ground water contamination from fracking may have ocurred - Pavilion, WY. Pavilion is a remote town of about 160 people. High levels of the chemicals linked to fracking have been found in groundwater supplies and the EPA is testing to confirm the source. But the aquifer in Pavilion was located only a few hundred feet above the shale gas deposit.

The Marcellus shale is so deep below natural aquifers - several thousand feet - that there is little to no risk of water contamination. Surface spills remain a risk, but a small risk. A recent study by Robert Jackson, a biology professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, has been used by fracking opponents because the study found "salty, mineral-rich fluids deep beneath Pennsylvania's natural gas fields are likely seeping upward thousands of feet into drinking water supplies." Opponents have used that finding to warn that fracking byproducts may do the same. But those opponents ignore other key aspects of the study - "the fluids were natural and not the byproduct of drilling or hydraulic fracturing" and "No drilling chemicals were detected in the water, and there was no correlation between where the natural brine was detected and where drilling takes place." Further, Jackson has said "We don't know if this happens over a couple of years, or over millennia" and he "considers it unlikely that frack fluids and injected man-made waste are migrating into drinking water supplies."

The PA town of Dimock was made famous in 2009 after a documentary filmmaker critical of fracking publicized complaints by residents that fracking was contaminating their water. But recent tests by the EPA determined the drinking water in the town was not contaminated.

The Marcellus Shale deposit stretches from New York south through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Western Maryland, and into West Virginia.

Please understand, I am not advocating fracking and natural gas extraction as a solution to the larger problem of greenhouse gas emissions or our reliance on fossil fuels. Understand as well that I am well versed in the environmental case against fracking in general - in addition to concerns about drinking water quality there are concerns that fracking may cause earthquakes. The US Geological Survey recently determined that fracking has likely resulted in increased tremors and minor earthquakes. But the USGS was unsure why and there is evidence to suggest that the disposal of waste water deep underground, as opposed to fracking, may be the culprit. Methane has roughly 4 times the heat trapping capacity of CO2. If increased extraction of natural gas were to result in higher levels of methane escaping and leaking into the atmosphere then the reduction in CO2 achieved by switching from coal to natural gas could be negated. So clearly there is an imperative to better contain gas at the points of extraction and distribution. Natural gas extraction is not without problems, but I argue the benefits from reduced reliance on coal outweigh those problems.

Fracking the Marcellus Shale has been ongoing in Pennsylvania and policymakers in New York are about to resume fracking by lifting a moratorium in place since 2008. It is estimated the Marcellus Shale deposit contains enough natural gas to power the U.S. for twenty years - this is crucial.

We are nowhere near developing a reliable renewable resource for energy production. Nuclear power is a great option but also a political hot potato owing to concerns about waste disposal and long term costs. Whether we opted for nuclear or solar or wind it would take considerable time to construct sufficient facilities to replace the energy currently provided by fossil fuels. Perhaps more important, our politics are marked by divided government and polarized parties. As a result, any progress on establishing a true national alternative to or reliance on fossil fuels is years away. Worse, perhaps, we mired in debt. Our annual deficits exceed $1 trillion and our accumulated debt has surpassed our GDP. Couple those realities with our divided and polarized government and you'll realize that there will be no national investment in infrastructure improvement anytime soon.

Natural gas is a stop-gap. It's an alternative to coal that is viable and readily accessible. And for all the concerns about natural gas it is a far superior alternative to coal - strip mining, coal dust, coal ash, CO2,  arsenic, mercury, chromium, and cadmium are all part and parcel of our reliance on coal. Would it be best to find a renewable resource? Of course. Is natural gas perfect? No.

But our quest for the perfect should not prevent us from doing the possible. Public policy is about making tough choices among less than perfect options. Right now, the best and only realistic choice for the US is natural gas. It's a choice we need to make - and the sooner the better.

Until we do find and are able to implement a viable zero emission energy source, we need to continue our shift away from coal and to natural gas and that means fracking Marcellus.