As Obama’s Team Explores for Shale Gas Fracking Solutions, Stanford University Weighs In
When it comes to drilling for natural gas, the Obama administration is also exploring for answers. And it has concluded that the best way to ensure safer hydraulic fracturing is for the federal government to increase its oversight.
A big part of the president’s environmental agenda is to reduce carbon emissions, which has come by changing out coal plants for those that run on natural gas that is derived from unconventional shale gas. But as everyone knows by now, that natural gas is discovered by pumping a concoction of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to loosen up the shale from the rocks where it is embedded.
And the concern is over whether the “flow back” to the surface is getting into drinking water supplies. Indeed, Stanford University has updated its research and weighed in on this issue. In a formal release issued this week, the university poses the question of whether living near a fracking site affects drinking water:
“The answer to that question is usually ‘no,’ but there are exceptions,” said Stanford Professor Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and at the Precourt Institute for Energy.
“We have found a number of homes near active wells with very high levels of natural gas in the tap water,” Jackson continues. “Where the chemistry suggests contamination, the problem usually lies with the integrity of the well, either the cementing used to isolate it from the surrounding rock and water or the steel casing that allows gas and oil to flow upwards.”
Most of the wells with issues were those that were poorly constructed, he concludes. Others with problems were far shallower than the typical depths of a mile beneath the earth’s surface. Jackson points to a study that discovered 2,600 wells were drilled at depths of 3,000 feet or less.
Last summer, the US Environmental Protection Agency found that there is no “widespread” problem associated with fracking and potable water supplies. Still, it had wanted more of the power to oversee those drilling operations to be monitored at the federal level, as opposed to the state level where it fears that drillings and local regulators have too cozy of a relationship.
“While hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources, we did not find evidence,” the EPA report said, “that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” “The number of identified cases,” the EPA continued, was “small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”
The reality is that thousands of wells are getting fracked, with the injection of water, sand, and chemicals very deep underground to extract the shale gas. And intricate system then brings the gas to the surface. EPA’s research looked at 38,000 oil and gas wells where the technology has been employed, all between 2000 and 2013. The vast majority of them got a good bill of health.
Still, the White House has pushed for more federal oversight and especially for regulations that would force drillers to disclose the fracking chemicals they use. The administration also wants stronger standards for well construction to limit fugitive releases and safer dispensing of dirty water flowing to the surface.
Last summer, the Harvard Business School and the Boston Consulting Group said that the abundance and the cheap price of natural gas are both attracting other industrials to our shores, creating new jobs and more wealth. That analysis is generally supported by an earlier one produced by Yale University.
“The U.S. needs to achieve a ‘rational middle’ ground to capitalize on this historic opportunity,” says the Harvard/Boston study, issued last summer.
Already, shale oil and gas added $430 billion to the 2014 annual gross domestic product here while supporting more than 2.7 million American jobs – at pay that is twice the median salaries, the study says. More remains to be done, it adds, noting that the natural gas pipeline infrastructure must be expanded to accommodate even more growth. Meantime, workers need to be retrained.
Okay, but what about concerns over fouling water supplies? Opponents say that fracking is allowing dirty water to escape into watersheds, citing a study from the Colorado School of Public Health that says those living near drilling sites are getting exposed to unhealthy conditions.
Consider New York State: It studied the health and safety affects of fracking and it has concluded that there are “significant public health risks.” Its own study concludes that the environmental costs outweigh the economic benefits. In December 2014, it officially banned the use of fracking within its borders.
Skeptics of fracking are pointing to Pavillion, Wyoming, where the Environmental Protection Agency had examined whether the fracking process polluted drinking water there: Regulators had discovered “synethetic chemicals” associated with drilling, which had contaminated the ground water. The samples, furthermore, didn’t meet the Safe Drinking Water Act standard.
The cause: EPA said that the Pavillion wells were too shallow, or about a quarter of the distance of most such development. If drilling is closer to the surface, then it increases the chance that chemicals would escape and that water supplies would be dirtied. Since that finding, however, EPA has turned over the investigation to Wyoming regulators.
With the push to reduce carbon emissions, natural gas producers are in the driver’s seat. And while their product is cheap and abundant, and cleaner than coal, those developers still need to proceed with caution. Any drilling accident could delay their progress, necessitating that they work more closely with the White House and federal regulators.
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