29 Nov 2017

The EPA and shale fracturing in the United States

Brian writes*

In the 1970s, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and private operators experimented with the extraction of natural gas from shale in the eastern United States. Ten years later, horizontal drilling technology had advanced to the point where it was ready for commercial use. The advancement was seen as a crucial step forward for the U.S. because it allowed the country to increase its domestic production of natural gas in order to fulfil a growing demand for the resource. However, the new technology poses a greater threat to groundwater reservoirs and the earth’s crust than conventional oil extraction techniques (i.e. well with pumpjack), thus placing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a conundrum.

The fracking process begins when a well is constructed with vertical piping which is placed underground. Once the piping reaches the shale layer, the piping rotates at a 90 degree angle and continues horizontally. Then, fluid is pumped underground to fracture the rock and extract trapped natural gas. The fluid contains a complex chemical mixture [pdf] that can include naphthalene, formaldehyde, and a variety of volatile organic compounds. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation [pdf], fracking fluids amount to between 3 and 7 million gallons of water per well.

According to the EPA, “dry shale gas production in the United States has increased from 1.0 trillion cubic feet in 2006 to 4.8 trillion cubic feet, or 23 percent of total U.S. dry natural gas production, in 2010. Wet shale gas reserves increased to about 60.64 trillion cubic feet by year-end 2009, and comprise about 21 percent of overall U.S. natural gas reserves.”

As the industry increases production, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plays an important role in both the political and economic discussion. The Agency’s obligation to both support natural gas, but also ensure environmental sustainability can often lead to conflicting interests. The agency states on its website that, “Natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future. The U.S. has vast reserves of natural gas that are commercially viable as a result of advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies enabling greater access to gas in shale formations.” It then qualifies the previous statement by saying,“The Agency is investing in improving our scientific understanding of hydraulic fracturing, providing regulatory clarity with respect to existing laws, and using existing authorities where appropriate to enhance health and environmental safeguards.”

There are four main negative impacts that fracking can have on the environment which include, “stress on surface water and groundwater supplies, contamination of underground sources of drinking water due to spills, negative impacts from discharging surface waters into underground injection wells, and air pollution from the release of volatile organic compounds.”

The oil and gas industries are exempt from certain clauses in critical federal environmental laws including the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. EPA policy must be reformed to ensure it accurately analyzes the benefits to fracking (i.e. increase in natural gas supply, domestic economic gains) along with the costs (i.e. environmental pollution, unsustainable practices).** A comparison to conventional oil well extraction will also be drawn upon in further analysis because it is useful to understand how the costs and benefits of fracking differ from conventional oil extraction.

Bottom line: It is critical to analyze the danger of short term solutions to long term problems. In other words, could banning fracking altogether be an effective mechanism for encouraging renewable energy investment in the United States?

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)

** Note from DZ: Read this "confession" from a paid shill on how he engaged in disingenuous "dialogue" to mislead citizens about the risks from fracking. Read my 2011 op/ed in favor of regulating fracking.


Anonymous said...

Hey Brian, I was wondering especially in regard to David's link, do you think safe fracking is possible? In that no environmental and social harm will occur? Thinking about sink holes, earth quakes, ground water contamination here, or does fracking always, although only marginally, affect its environment? (Julia)

Anonymous said...

Hey Brian, especially excited for the very last part, the comparison to conventional extraction methods. It is not likely that extraction will stop anytime soon, so comparing fracking to conventional is important for minimizing impacts on the environment. In a more progressive US (maybe in a few years) this could lead to wise decisions, concentrating on one method or few locations. Bear in mind that (especially environmental) impacts will highly differ per location. E.g. ANWR oil well development might have more impacts than conventional oil wells AND fracking. (Ronald)

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