Friday, June 18, 2010

Frack you

As our thirst for hydrocarbons increases, and their ready availability declines, the "externalized" costs of their extraction-- let alone their use-- continue to mount. Just ask the good people of Dimock, PA.

Now coming into focus are the many problems with hydrofracking (i.e., hydraulic fracturing), a process increasingly used to extract natural gas from diffuse deposits deep underground. The most dangerous effects appear to be groundwater contamination and surface water pollution. Toxic chemicals-- including diesel and benzene-- are often used in a drilling fluid soup injected into the well bore. Much of this fluid comes back to surface-- the rest may disperse underground, eventually contaminating groundwater sources through natural fissures in the rock (though vertical separation of gas-bearing and water-table strata is normally large).

And how is all this destruction possible? Don't we have environmental laws protecting water sources? Yes, we do. And if you're powerful enough, you can override them-- which is what's been happening in the case of hydrofracking:
Many of those exemptions—from provisions in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—are longstanding. The most notable among them was introduced by Vice President Dick Cheney as an amendment to the 2005 energy bill. The so-called Halliburton Loophole, named after Cheney's former employer and the company that pioneered the fracking process in the 1940s, stripped the EPA's authority to regulate hydrofracking through the Safe Water Drinking Act. Companies were essentially given free rein to drill however and wherever they see fit, and to use and dispose of proprietary fracking fluids without any disclosure or safety requirements. The only remaining shred of federal oversight was a voluntary agreement with the three largest companies not to use diesel fuel—which they proceeded to ignore.

With increased attention going to nat gas as a domestic fuel source, drilling and hydrofracking are on the rise bigtime. But lest you think the practice is something new, consider these statistics:
Drilling is now regulated entirely at the state level, where there is not nearly enough manpower to handle the volume of wells. In 2008 thirty-five inspectors were responsible for more than 74,000 wells in Pennsylvania (with promises to hire sixty-eight more as Marcellus drilling grows); nineteen inspectors covered more than 13,000 wells in New York; and twenty-four oversaw more than 64,000 wells in Ohio. [Emphasis mine.]

The article mentions growing opposition to the practice-- which may soon invade much of the huge area of the Marcellus Shale formation (runs from NY to TN)-- and affected states beginning to take notice of the dangers. A boost of attention to the practice has of course come from the BP Gulf disaster. Let's hope we learn to prevent-- rather than merely react to-- the most dangerous effects.

The best way to begin would be to take personal responsibility to lower your own fossil fuel consumption footprint.

More info on hydrofracking here.

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At 6/27/2010 7:10 AM, Blogger Algernon said...

More on fracking in this Vanity Fair article:


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