Wednesday, December 09, 2009

'Fracking' expands gas supply, threatening coal's power-plant market and perhaps groundwater

We've reported about advancements in the natural-gas drilling practice of hydraulic and chemical called fracturng that is opening up previously inaccessible U.S. reserves, most recently here and here, and major newspapers are starting to pay closer attention, especially since gas offers an expanded source of energy. Some experts say recoverable U.S. gas reserves could now be bigger than the immense Russian reserves, Steven Mufson of The Washington Post reports, and the "fracking" process has led to a land rush in areas like southern New York, which lies at the northern end of the vast Marcellus Shale formation, one of several being fracked.

The new supplies would leave the U.S. less vulnerable to disruptions from Gulf Coast hurricanes and less dependent on imports, Mufson reports. Ready supply of natural gas at stable prices may also deal another blow to proposals for new coal-fired power plants, and gas plants, which can be shut on and off more easily than coal or nuclear, could supplement wind and solar facilities. "Natural gas can serve as a bridge fuel to a low-carbon, sustainable energy future," former Colorado Sen. Timothy Wirth, now head of the United Nations Foundation, told Mufson.

Expanded gas drilling isn't without its skeptics and opponents. Many environmentalists "have sounded alarms about the chemicals that drillers use to fracture the rock and the danger of natural gas or other substances contaminating water supplies," Mufson writes. In September, we reported the environmental concerns regarding fracking. New York has declared a moratorium on drilling until the state's Department of Environmental Conservation new regulations. "There are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed," Bruce Nilles, a lawyer at the Sierra Club, told Mufson, but he added new natural gas supplies could be a "game-changer" in the battle against coal-fired power plants. (Read more)

UPDATE, Dec. 24: The leading news organization on fracking is ProPublica, the non-profit group headed by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. He take umbrage at criticism from Investors' Business Daily and defends ProPublica's reporting, here.

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