Regulating Natural Gas and Fracking

Current natural gas production is growing rapidly in the U.S. Although natural gas will be vital to our country’s future energy security the current means of extraction are not sufficiently regulated (See here for an example). I believe this poses an urgent danger that needs to be addressed.

Natural gas has always been an important part of the U.S. energy portfolio, in 2009 natural gas accounted for approximately 24% of our energy use (pg 37). The current press that natural gas is receiving as a possible replacement for both coal and oil is because of recent technology developments that allow us to access previously unrecoverable resources. This is significant because approximately 33% of U.S. natural gas reserves are from shale. This is an estimate that has doubled since 2010 and may continue to increase.

Shale gas is found in shale “plays” across the U.S. Recent estimates have given the US a current domestic reserve of approximately 110 years at 2009 levels of consumption.

Conventional natural gas is created when the gas rises through permeable rock until it hits a layer of impermeable rock. There it pools until a drilling company drills through to access the gas.

Shale gas differs from traditional gas in that the shale itself, although porous, is not very permeable; this means that natural gas remains trapped in the shale rather than working its way towards the surface. Until recently, this gas could not be accessed in a way that was economically viable. Two major advances have allowed us to develop these fields economically.

1. Horizontal drilling – a vertical well is drilled to the depth of the layer of shale gas; the drill then goes horizontally within the layer of shale to increase access to the deposit, this increases efficiency dramatically.
2. Hydraulic fracturing (e.g.: “fracking” or “hydrofracking”) – a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced underground into the shale at extremely high pressure; the shale is fractured, the released gas flows back the surface of the well.

At the behest of then Vice President Cheney, the 2005 Congress exempted gas drilling from federal regulations. This exemption was based on the concept that the chemicals used in fracking are “proprietary” and therefore exempt from disclosure under federal drinking water regulations.

Unfortunately, this creates several problems. The first is that we don’t know what is being injected into the ground. Similarly, we don’t know what impact this is having on the aquifers beneath the gas layers. This is further compounded because as the fluids are removed from the earth there is no regulation on their treatment.

As an example, in some cases the water that has been used for fracking contains low levels of radioactivity. This water is then taken to standard sewage treatment plants, many of which are subsequently forbidden from testing for radioactivity. The irony here is that even if they did test and find radioactivity the plants were not designed to deal with either the radioactivity or the additional inflow of material.

This directly effects us all. By using clean water to frack we are denying its use elsewhere, such as for agriculture or household use. Possible contamination of our aquifers will have long-term effects on our society and national security – U.S. agriculture is highly dependent on underground water for irrigation. Finally, by dumping unknown and untreated chemicals into domestic sources of drinking water we are impacting ourselves, and our countries, future in unquantifiable ways. Unfortunately, current estimates don’t expect fracking regulations to be put in place until 2012 at least.

Natural gas is an important source of energy and one that needs to be utilized in the near and long-term. However as an industry it needs to be regulated and monitored.

Trading water security for energy security is not in our country’s best interest.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons