Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Fracking' may reinvent the natural gas industry, but poses some environmental risks

A new drilling method has given U.S. natural gas companies access to the vast underground gas reserves for the first time, an advancement that industry executives predict will "revolutionize the industry all over the world." We've reported on controversy surrounding the environmental impacts of "fracking" before (Earlier this month and in February), but Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio has the best explanation of the process we've seen yet.

Fracking projects drill more than more than a mile below the surface before gradually steering the bit to one side until it is heading sideways across the shale layer. Companies then fracture the rock by forcing a mixture of sand and water through the well at high pressure, opening more cracks in the rock for the gas to escape. Shale gas "is the most important energy development since the discovery of oil," Fred Julander, founder and chief executive of Denver-based gas company, Julander Energy, tells Gjelten. (NPR graphic)

Proponents of the process argue "big boost in the use of natural gas would dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil," Gjelten writes. Despite the rosy predictions of environmental improvement, some residents near fracking sites have already complained of water contamination. A hydrologist found benzene contamination in a water well in Wyoming near a fracking site and residents of Dimock, Pa., near the Marcellus shale formation have voiced similar complaints. The "FRAC Act," before Congress, would also require natural gas producers to disclose the chemicals they are using, Gjeltin reports.

You can read the entire NPR series on fracking here:
UPDATE, Oct. 24: NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard responded to suspicion that the series soft-pedaled the environmental impact of expanded gas drilling because the network had just received a sponsorship from America's Natural Gas Alliance, a lobbying group. Shepard acknowledged, "The reports did not thoroughly address environmental and public health concerns." She said the network should have used some of its local affiliates in New York or Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale formation is being fracked, to more fully address environmental concerns. For Shepard's comprehensive report, click here.

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