One could make a compelling case for shale-rock natural gas, the latest advertised “game changer” in solving both the energy and global warming crises, if only we knew what we’re getting into ecologically.
Or, not to put too fine a point on it, whether we’re going to poison ourselves by extracting natural gas embedded in shale by injecting carcinogens under high pressure into rock formations 1,524 metres under the ground.
Soaring oil prices in the past decade have triggered a boom in “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking,” a process by which vast amounts of natural gas are tapped in sprawling shale-rock gas formations across North America. Some of the largest of these are in Canada, including the Horn River Basin in northeast British Columbia and the Unita Shale formation underneath the rich farmland along Quebec’s St. Lawrence River.
To the south, shale gas plays have sprung up not only in jurisdictions long accustomed to the sight of a drilling rig, such as Texas, Colorado and Wyoming, but in unlikely places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest. The Marcellus Shale basin, spanning New York State to Tennessee, runs beneath the watershed that supplies more than 1 billion gallons of water a day to New York City.
New York City’s unfiltered water system is unique only in being the largest among the countless unfiltered municipal fresh-water supply systems on the continent. Which could be big trouble if critics of fracking — effectively mini-earthquakes, as veteran environmental reporter and author Andrew Nikiforuk accurately labels the brutal process — are vindicated in their fears. Chief among those is contamination of water tables from migration of the toxic brew of chemicals that gas producers force into the ground along with tremendous amounts of water and sand to force the natural gas to the surface.
The compelling part of the story is that the Marcellus formation alone is estimated to contain enough natural gas to heat every household in America and power every electric plant for two decades. And that oil prices are soaring again, up more than 30 per cent since last summer. That world demand for oil will keep climbing, along with its price, driven mostly by the emerging economic superpowers of China and India.
Problems are emerging. While natural gas emits half the greenhouse-gas emissions of oil, a study to be published this week suggests shale-rock gas may be worse for the planet than burning coal. The problem is that huge quantities of planet-warming methane escape into the atmosphere from shale gas wells, according to research by a team led by Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental geology at Cornell University. The study was reported on yesterday by The New York Times.
The Obama administration is four-square supportive of fracking, as part of an energy policy outlined last week by the U.S. president. That policy embraces every existing and potential energy source as a collective cure for America’s oil addiction.
And in these early stages of recovery from the Great Recession, the economic stimulus from the rapidly growing fracking industry is undeniably appealing. The B.C. government already looks to fracking as its largest single source of revenue.
In Pennsylvania, among the states hardest hit by decline in blue-collar manufacturing jobs, some 44,000 new jobs and nearly $400 million in tax revenue accrued from hydraulic fracturing activity in the three years ending 2009.
And on a personal level, it’s tough to say no to drillers offering the likes of Arline LaTourette of Pennsylvania between $2,000 (U.S.) and $5,000 per acre in signing bonuses for drilling rights to her land. In LaTourette’s case, that has amounted to a minimum windfall of $1.4 million even before LaTourette begins to reap royalties equal to 20 per cent of the value of the gas extracted from the ground.
There are more catches than just the emissions equation.
The fracking process consumes tremendous amounts of fresh water, already in short supply worldwide. B.C.’s shale-gas industry has permits to tap water from rivers, lakes and aquifers in twice the daily volume used by Greater Victoria. Instances have been recorded of water-treatment plants unable to process the fracking fluid used by the industry. Fracking processing plants and related activities generate greenhouse gas emissions – about two million tonnes per day in the case of EnCana Corp.’s Cabin Gas Plant.
And the ratio of energy produced for energy invested (EROI) is unflattering for gas derived from fracking. Oil, hardly a model of ideal return on energy inputs, yields 15 units of energy for every unit required to extract and refine it. The ratio for natural gas derived from fracking is a miserable 2:1.
The only remarkable thing about fracking is how little we know about it, and how regulators in Canada and the U.S. have nonetheless allowed it to proceed in the absence of studies into its current and long-term impacts.
The industry claims to have drilled tens of thousands of wells with only a handful of minor incidents of groundwater contamination. Yet the Pro Publica investigative journalism group has documented contamination of some 1,000 groundwater wells near shale gas operations in the U.S.
In the Marcellus Shale play, the industry leaves behind as much as three million gallons of contaminated water in the ground for every well drilled. We don’t know what will become of those contaminants over time.
The industry refuses to divulge the contents of what it describes as the “secret sauce” of chemicals it injects into the ground. But the mix is known to include benzene, diesel fuel, hydrogen sulfide and alcohols. Some of the chemicals used are carcinogens.
New York State has imposed a moratorium on fracking, but most regulators in the U.S. and Canada appear indifferent to potential damages from fracking.
France imposed a moratorium earlier this year on fracking in the Paris Basin, outside the capital. Eric Besson, French industry minister, said that while chemicals used in fracking “have caused considerable damage in the U.S. and Canada…some industry representatives say there may be clean technology that would permit production of shale gas without causing what we’ve seen in the U.S.”
Karl Wasner, a fellow Pennsylvanian of Arline LaTourette, already has made his decision. He’s set to move if drill rigs appear on properties near his, according to a recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek. Wasner already decamped for six weeks while a well was drilled nearby. He was driven from his home by the noise, the brown water flowing from his household taps, and chemicals detected in a neighbour’s well water.
“I moved to a beautiful rural residential area,” Wasner said. “Not an industrial park.”