Eventually oil and natural gas will run out and renewables will make up more, then all, of the energy pie chart. Planning for that future is key, but until then, the policies our governing bodies approve must take into consideration the environmental effects of oil and gas development.
The Marcellus Shale stretches from New York to West Virginia. Deep down inside the shale lies natural gas. Energy companies, with the help of new techniques known as hydraulic fracturing, are capable of drilling for and extracting natural gas.
The nation’s largest natural-gas corporation, Chesapeake Energy, has filed an application to withdraw 1 million gallons of water per day from the Delaware River in nearby Wayne County, Pennsylvania. DRBC spokesperson Kate O’Hara said “we have a history of approving water withdrawals, but this is the initial one for natural gas.”
How will these water withdrawals, if approved, affect the drinking supply of the tri-state area? How does hydraulic fracturing for gas affect water supplies? The answers vary depending on who you’re asking.
Several groups have expressed concern with or opposition to the application. New York-based environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper is against the withdrawal. Ramsay Adams, executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, said his group does not want to see any drilling yet “because there are too many unanswered questions,” such as concerns about possible pollution in the fracking process.
During horizontal drilling, a well is bored deep down into the shale layer, and then across in that same layer, making the shape of and L. During hydraulic fracturing workers inject a water-based mixture into the well at high pressure to crack the rock. Also known as “fracking fluid”, the liquid solution is injected at high pressures into rock layers to break up the rock and release gas.
The Obama administration seems poised to do more about the possible problems with fracking for natural gas. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson said she is in favor of a review of the fracking process.
In May, Jackson told Congress she believes EPA should review its policy relating to the hydraulic fracturing method and the risk it may pose to drinking water supplies. Until now, EPA has not been involved in assessing the method’s environmental risks. Why? Because Congress, in writing the 2005 Energy Policy Act, exempted it from review under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
How did energy companies get away with that one? Money and lobbyists and their idea of “intellectual property”.
According to an article titled “Does Natural Gas Drilling Endanger Water Supplies?” [PDF] written by Abrahm Lustgarten of NY-based non profit ProPublica, some regulators and environmentalists worry that fluids injected into many U.S. gas fields could be contaminating drinking water with benzene, methanol, and other toxic substances.
“The industry counters that its methods are safe,” writes Lustgarten. “Drillers point to a 2004 study by the EPA that supports their position, as well as a key legislative exemption from federal oversight they won in 2005.”
Simply, energy firms, thanks to the legislation, are exempt from disclosing what’s in the fracking fluids because they say disclosure would “result in an unconstitutional taking of intellectual property.”
Recent well tests conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in the rural northeast Pennsylvania township of Dimock did not find evidence of fracking contamination of drinking water but Pennsylvania is continuing its monitoring.
Josh Fox, a NY-based filmmaker, sees things differentlhy. Fox's in-progress film, "Rage of Nature", documents experiences of people living in Texas, Colorado and Wyoming who say they have had health effects including brain lesions, resperatory problems, peripheral neuropathy and cardiovascular problems due to water contamination from natural gas drilling.
When Jackson spoke before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, she responded to a question by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY). Jackson told the congressman she believed EPA should review the risk that fracturing poses to drinking water in light of various cases across the country that raise questions about the process. Hinchey’s district includes part of the area underlain by the Marcellus Shale.
More recently Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) moved ahead with her bill to put this widely used oil and gas drilling process under federal oversight while also seeking a study to gather more data on the practice. DeGette sponsored a bill that would repeal the ban on regulating hydraulic fracturing under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill, co-sponsored by Hinchey, is opposed by industry groups, which say the technology is used to drill the majority of the country's oil and gas wells and is crucial to energy development. The industry says claims that fracking threatens groundwater are unsubstantiated.
Hinchey said that while drilling for natural gas could have value as an energy source, it should be done in a way that doesn’t contaminate drinking water sources. Sounds like a plan.
With Obama and Jackson in office perhaps we will see legislation to overturn this exemption. If, like the gas industry executives say, everything is safe, then there should be no problem disclosing what’s in the stuff, and drilling in a way that’s safe for drinking water, the environment, and residents.
Any opinion contained in this article is solely that of the writers, and does not necessarily shape or reflect the editorial opinions of Energy Boom. Energy Boom content is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be advice regarding the investment merits of, or a recommendation regarding the purchase or sale of, any security identified on, or linked through, this site.